The Book of Imaginary Beings by Jorge Luis Borges (1967)

This is an alphabetical list of fantastical and imaginary beasts from myth and legend, compiled by Borges with the assistance of his friend, Margarita Guerrero, and, to be honest, it’s a bit boring.

The Penguin paperback edition of The Book of Imaginary Beings has three prefaces which, among other things, point out that the collection grew, from 82 pieces in 1957, to 116 in 1967, to 120 in the 1969 edition. It’s an example of the pleasurable way all Borges’s collections – of poems, essays or stories – accumulate additional content over successive editions and, in doing so, hint at the scope for infinite expansion, and the dizzying sense of infinite vistas which lie behind so many of his fictions.

Imaginary beings

Strictly speaking there’s an endless number of imaginary beings since every person in every novel or play ever written is an imaginary being – but, of course, the authors have in mind not imaginary people but imaginary animals, fabulous beasts concocted by human fantasy. They have aimed to create:

a handbook of the strange creatures conceived through time and space by the human imagination

The book was created in collaboration with Borges’s friend Margarita Guerrero, and between them they tell us they had great fun ransacking ‘the maze-like vaults of the Biblioteca Nacional’ in Buenos Aires, scouring through books ancient and modern, fictional and factual, for the profiles of mythical beings from folklore and legend.

One of the conclusions they make in the preface was that it is quite difficult to make up new monsters. Many have tried, but most new-fangled creatures fall by the wayside. For example, Flaubert had a go at making new monsters in the later parts of The Temptation of Saint Anthony, but none of them really stir the imagination. There appear to be some archetypal patterns which just seem to gel with the human imagination, which chime with our deepest fears or desires and so have lasted through the centuries in folklore and myth, and are found across different cultures.

We are as ignorant of the meaning of the dragon as we are of the meaning of the universe, but there is something in the dragon’s image that appeals to the human imagination, and so we find the dragon in quite distinct places and times. It is, so to speak, a necessary monster, not an ephemeral or accidental one, such as the three-headed chimera or the catoblepas.

There are entries for 120 imaginary beasts, arranged in alphabetical order across 142 pages, making an average of 1.2 pages per entry, much shorter even than his short stories, about the same length as the ‘parables’ included in Labyrinths. Where possible, the authors include references to the source documents or texts where they discovered good descriptions of the beast in question.

But book actually references quite a few more than the 120 nominal beasts since many of the entries are portmanteau headings of, for example, the imaginary fauna of Chile (6 beasts); the Fauna of China entry (taken from the T’ai P’ing Kuang Chi) describes 12 imaginary beasts and 3 types of mutant human (people whose hands dangle to the ground or have human bodies but bat wings); the Fauna of America entry describes nine weird and wonderful animals. In other words, the book actually contains names and descriptions of many times 120 beasts, at a rough guess at least three times as many.

Thoughts

This should all be rather wonderful, shouldn’t it? But although it’s often distracting and amusing, The Book of Imaginary Beings almost entirely lacks the sense of wonder and marvel which characterises the extraordinary contents of Labyrinths.

Ultimately, the long list becomes rather wearing and highlights the barrenness of even the most florid creations if they are not brought to life by either a chunky narrative (I mean a narrative long enough for you to become engaged with) or by Borges’s magic touch, his deployment of strange and bizarre ideas to animate them.

Borges’s best stories start with wonderful, mind-dazzling insights and create carapaces of references or narrative around them. These encyclopedia-style articles about fabulous creatures, on the other hand, occasionally gesture towards the strange and illuminating but, by and large, remain not much more than a succession of raw facts.

For example, we learn that the word ‘basilisk’ comes from the Greek meaning ‘little king’, that the fabulous beast it refers to is mentioned in the authors Pliny and Chaucer and Aldrovani, in each of which it has a different appearance; we are given a long excerpt about the basilisk from Lucan’s Pharsalia.

Well, this is all very well and factual, but where are the ideas and eerie insights which make Borges’s ficciones so mind-blowing? Nowhere. The entries read like raw ingredients which are waiting to be cooked by Borges into a dazzling essay… which never materialises. More than that, it’s full of sentences which are uncharacteristically flaccid and banal.

Suggested or stimulated by reflections in mirrors and in water and by twins, the idea of the Double is common to many countries.

Really? In some of his stories this idea comes to dazzling life; in this collection of articles, it lies dead on the page.

A bestiary manqué

You could argue that the whole idea is an updating of the popular medieval genre of the ‘bestiary’. Wikipedia gives a pithy summary of the genre:

A bestiary is a compendium of beasts. Originating in the ancient world, bestiaries were made popular in the Middle Ages in illustrated volumes that described various animals and even rocks. The natural history and illustration of each beast was usually accompanied by a moral lesson.

I think the key is in that final phrase: bestiaries may well have fired the imaginations of their readers, amused and distracted them, but they had a purpose. Indeed, to the medieval mind the whole natural world was full of meaning and so every single creature in it existed to point a moral, to teach humans something (about God, about the Christian life, and so on). Bolstering every anecdote about this or that fabulous animal was a lesson we could all take away and benefit from.

Whereas, being 20th century agnostics and, moreover, of a modernist turn of mind which prefers clipped brevity to Victorian verbosity, the authors write entries which are deliberately brief and understated, and shorn of any moral or reflection, or analysis.

Whereas Borges’s fictions tend to build up to a bombshell insight which can haunt you for days, these entries just end and then you’re onto another item on the list, then another, then another, and after a while the absence of analysis or insight begins to feel like an almost physical lack.

Pictures

Given its static nature as a rather passive list written in often lifeless prose, what this book would really, really have have benefited from would have been being published in a large, coffee table format with an illustration for each monster.

I googled a lot of the entries in the book and immediately began having more fun on the internet, looking at the weird and wonderful illustrations of the beasts – comparing the way the basilisk or chimera or behemoth have depicted through the ages (and in our age which has seen an explosion of fantastical illustrations) than I had in reading Borges and Guerrero’s rather drab texts.

The two-headed Bird Dragon Ouroboros from the Aberdeen bestiary Illuminated manuscript

The two-headed bird-dragon Ouroboros from the Aberdeen bestiary illuminated manuscript

Favourites

On the up-side, here are some things I enjoyed:

I was delighted that The Book of Imaginary Beings contains not one but two entries for made-up creatures in C.S. Lewis’s science fiction novel, Perelandra.

To be reminded of the strange fact that Sleipnir, the horse belonging to Odin, king of the Norse gods, had eight legs.

A Chinese legend has it that the people who lived in mirrors were a different shape and size and kind from the people in this world. Once there were no borders and people could come and go between the real world and the mirror world. Then the mirror people launched an attack on our world but were defeated by the forces of the Yellow Emperor who compelled them to take human form and slavishly ape all the behaviour of people in this world, as if they were simply our reflections. But one day they will rise up and reclaim their freedom (Fauna of Mirrors).

The Hidebehind is always hiding behind something. No matter how many times or whichever way a man turns, it is always behind him, and that’s why nobody has been able to describe it, even though it is credited with having killed and devoured many a lumberjack. The Goofus Bird builds its nest upside down and flies backward, not caring where it’s going, only where it’s been.

At one point Borges lingers on the dogma of the Kabbalists and, for a moment, the real deep Borges appears, the one fascinated by the paradoxes of infinity:

In a book inspired by infinite wisdom, nothing can be left to chance, not even the number of words it contains or the order of the letters; this is what the Kabbalists thought, and they devoted themselves to the task of counting, combining, and permutating the letters of the Scriptures, fired by a desire to penetrate the secrets of God.

A Platonic year is the time required by the sun, the moon, and the five planets to return to their initial position; Tacitus in his Dialogus de Oratoribus calculates this as 12,994 common years.

In the middle of the twelfth century, a forged letter supposedly sent by Prester John, the king of kings, to the Emperor of Byzantium, made its way all over Europe. This epistle, which is a catalogue of wonders, speaks of gigantic ants that dig gold, and of a River of Stones, and of a Sea of Sand with living fish, and of a towering mirror that reflects whatever happens in the kingdom, and of a sceptre carved of a single emerald, and of pebbles that make a man invisible or that light up the night.

Threes

The Greek gods ruled three realms, heaven ruled by Zeus, the sea ruled by Poseidon, and hell ruled by Hades.

In ancient Greek religion the Moirai, called by the Romans the Parcae, known in English as the Fates, were the incarnations of destiny: Clotho (the ‘spinner’), Lachesis (the ‘allotter’) and Atropos (the ‘unturnable’, a metaphor for death).

Cerberus, the huge dog guarding hell, had three heads.

In Norse mythology, the Norns are female beings who rule the destiny of gods and men. In Snorri Sturluson’s interpretation of the Völuspá, there are three main norns, Urðr (Wyrd), Verðandi and Skuld. They are invoked in the three weird sisters who appear in Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

There are many valkyries – choosers of the dead –but tradition names three main ones as Hildr, Þrúðr and Hlökk.

Hinduism has Trimurti (Sanskrit for ‘three forms’) referring to the triad of the three gods Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva.

The Christian God is a Trinity of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.

Jesus is resurrected on the third day after his crucifixion (counting Good Friday, Saturday and Sunday as days), an event prefigured by the three days the prophet Jonah spent in the belly of the whale.

In The Divine Comedy Dante journeys through the three parts of the afterworld, hell, purgatory and paradise.

According to Moslem tradition, Allah created three different species of intelligent beings: Angels, who are made of light; Jinn (‘Jinnee’ or ‘Genie’ in the singular), who are made of fire; and Men, who are made of earth.

Jinnee or genies grant three wishes.

Humans divide time (if it exists, that is) into the past, the present and the future.

The three billygoats gruff. The three bears. The three little pigs.

Fours

The four horsemen of the apocalypse.

The four gospels of the four evangelists, each one symbolised by an animal: to Matthew a man’s face, Mark the lion; Luke the calf; and John, the eagle.

In Babylon, the prophet Ezekiel saw in a vision four beasts or angels, ‘And every one had four faces, and every one had four wings’ and ‘As for the likeness of their faces, they four had the face of a man, and the face of a lion, on the right side: and they four had the face of an ox on the left side; they four also had the face of an eagle.’

John the Divine in the fourth chapter of Revelations: ‘And before the throne there was a sea of glass like unto crystal: and in the midst of the throne, and round about the throne, were four beasts full of eyes before and behind. And the first beast was like a lion, and the second beast like a calf, and the third beast had a face as a man, and the fourth beast was like a flying eagle. And the four beasts had each of them six wings about him; and they were full of eyes within…’

In the most important of Kabbalistic works, the Zohar or Book of Splendour, we read that these four beasts are called Haniel, Kafziel, Azriel, and Aniel and that they face east, north, south, and west.

Dante stated that every passage of the Bible has a fourfold meaning: the literal, the allegorical, the moral, and the spiritual.

The four corners of the earth. The four points of the compass.

The Greeks divided visible matter into the four elements of fire, earth, air, and water, and attributed the four humours which match them, black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood, themselves the basis of the four temperaments of mankind, choleric, melancholic, phlegmatic and sanguine, respectively.

The four magic animals of Chinese cosmogony.

The four animals of good omen, being the unicorn, the dragon, the phoenix, and the tortoise.

A Borges reading list

This is an incomplete list of the texts most frequently referred to in The Book of Imaginary Beings. Laid out like this you can see how, beyond the respectable tradition of the classics, this is a kind of greatest hits selection of the esoteric and mystical traditions of world literature.

Reflecting on the list of texts, I realised they have one thing in common which is that they are all pre-scientific and non-scientific. Personally, I believe in modern cosmology’s account of the creation of the universe in a big bang, in the weird discoveries of particle physics which account for matter, gravity, light and so on; and, when it comes to life forms, I believe in a purely mechanistic origin for replicating life, and in Darwin’s theory of natural selection as improved by the discovery of the helical structure of DNA in 1953 and the 70 subsequent years of genetic science, to explain why there are, and inevitably have to be, such an enormous variety of life forms on earth.

For me, taken together, all the strands of modern science explain pretty much everything about the world around us and about human nature: why we are why we are, why we think and behave as we do.

None of that is recorded in any of these books. Instead everything in the books listed here amounts to various types of frivolous entertainment and speculation. It could be described as highly decorative rubbish. Homer and the Aeneid may well be the bedrocks of Western literature and Dante one of the central figures of European civilisation but, having lived and worked in the world for over 40 years, I’m well aware that the vast majority of people neither know nor care, and care even less about the more remote and obscure books on this list. They are for the pleasure of antiquaries and lovers of the obscure; people, dear reader, like thee and me.

Ancient world

  • The Epic of Gilgamesh
  • The Iliad and the Odyssey by Homer
  • Hesiod’s Theogony and Book of Days (700 BC)
  • The Old Testament
  • The Tibetan Book of the Dead
  • The Mahābhārata (3rd century BC?)
  • The Argonautica by Apollonius Rhodius (3rd century BC)
  • The Aeneid by Virgil (29 to 19 BC)
  • Metamorphoses or the Books of Transformations by Ovid (8 AD)
  • De Bello Civili or the Pharsalia by Lucan (30 AD?)
  • On the Nature of the Gods by Cicero
  • The Natural History by Pliny the Elder (77 AD)
  • History of the Jewish Wars by Flavius Josephus
  • The New Testament (1st century AD)

Middle Ages

  • Beowulf
  • The Exeter Book (tenth century)
  • The Song of Roland (11th-century)
  • The Poetic Edda (13th century)
  • The Prose Edda (13th century)
  • The Zohar, primary text of the Kabbalists
  • The 1001 Arabian Nights
  • The Golden Legend compiled by Jacobus de Voragine (thirteenth century)
  • The Travels of Marco Polo (1300)
  • The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri (1320)
  • Travels of Sir John Mandeville (1360s)
  • Autobiography by Benvenuto Cellini (1563)
  • Orlando Furioso by Ludovico Ariosto (1532)

Early modern

  • The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes (1605 and 1615)
  • The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton (1621)
  • Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial, or, a Discourse of the Sepulchral Urns lately found in Norfolk by Sir Thomas Browne (1658)
  • Peter Wilkins by Robert Paltock (1751)
  • The World as Will and Representation (1844) by Arthur Schopenhauer
  • The Temptation of Saint Anthony by Gustave Flaubert (1874)
  • The Golem by Gustav Meyrink (1915)

Would be a challenge, fun and interesting to read all these books, in this order. A nutritious slice through Western civilisation.


Related links

Borges reviews

Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges (1962)

The metaphysicians of Tlön do not seek for the truth or even for verisimilitude, but rather for the astounding.

There is no pleasure more complex than that of thought.

In the course of a life dedicated to letters and (at times) to metaphysical perplexity…

Borges wrote a surprising amount (some 70 books in Spanish) and yet he is principally known in the Anglo-Saxon world for just one work published 60 years ago, Labyrinths, a breath-taking collection of 40 mind-bending short stories, short essays, and ‘parables’, all of which reference, quote and play with a multitude of obscure and arcane texts and ideas derived from philosophy, theology and mysticism.

Penguin went on to publish a flotilla of four or five other volumes by Borges, but none of them hold a candle to Labyrinths which is one of the most important volumes of short stories in English in the second half of the 20th century. It is a scandal that, to this day, only a fraction of Borges’s output has been translated into English.

Adventures among books and ideas

Labyrinths consists of 23 ficciones, ten essays and eight ‘parables’. All the stories were written and first published in Borges’s native Spanish in Argentine literary magazines between 1941 and 1956. The first 13 stories are taken from a previous collection, Ficciones, published in 1945, which was expanded in successive editions, and the remaining ten were published in a collection titled The Aleph, published in 1949, and also added to in later editions. That’s a long time ago but when you look at individual stories it’s striking to see that most of them were first published in literary magazines much earlier, most of them at the very end of the 1930s, during the Second World War and in the immediate post-war years. Although he carried on writing into the 1980s, his greatest hits were composed in the 1940s.

Before I exhaust myself giving brief summaries of each of the pieces, let me make a simple point which is that, rereading Borges’s stories made me realise that possibly his major discovery was that, for the purposes of writing a short fiction, you can replace plot with ideas.

What I mean is that the best stories discuss philosophical and metaphysical or mystical ideas and, in doing so, refer to scores of obscure Latin and Greek, or Christian or Islamic texts and sources – and that it is this, rather than plots, character or dialogue, which fills his stories.

Most adventures are, almost by definition, about people, about named characters. Borges’s short fictions are adventures whose protagonists are ideas, ideas characterised by their multi-layered bookishness and whose explanation requires multiple references to all manner of arcane texts – and whose ‘adventure’ consists in the logical unfolding of far-fetched premises to even more-mind-boggling conclusions: such as the man who discovers he is a dream created by someone else; or that the entire universe is made up of an infinite library; or that all human activity is determined by a secret lottery; and so on.

It is immensely characteristic of this preference for ideas over psychology or emotions or feelings that, when the narrator of Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius stumbles across an encyclopedia purporting to catalogue the fictitious planet of Tlön, he experiences a moment of delirious happiness i.e. emotion, feeling – but quickly stifles it:

I began to leaf through [the encyclopedia] and experienced an astonished and airy feeling of vertigo which I shall not describe, for this is not the story of my emotions but of Uqbar and Tlön and Orbis Tertius.

In fact various emotions do occur in the stories, there are characters and events, but this moment can stand as a symbol of the way that fiction’s traditional concerns for character and emotion and plot are, on the whole, in Borges’s stories, repressed or sidelined in order to make way for the adventures of ideas and books.

Borges’s bookishness is not for everyone

And I suppose there’s a point that’s so obvious that it’s easy to miss which is that you have to be fairly learnèd and scholarly, or at least fairly well-read, in order to really enjoy these works. On the first page alone of Deutsches Requiem Borges mentions Brahms and Schopenhauer and Shakespeare and Nietzsche and Spengler and Goethe and Lucretius. Now I not only know who these guys all are, but I have read some or much of all of them (a lot of Shakespeare and Nietszche, a book of Schopenhauer’s, some Goethe and Spengler) and so the mental edifice which invoking their names creates, the structure and framework of the story, are all entirely familiar to me and so I can enjoy how Borges plays with their names and references.

But I suppose there will be many readers who haven’t read (or listened to, in the case of Brahms) these authors and composers, and so might have to stop and Google each of them and, I suppose, this might well put off a lot of potential readers. It’s not that the stories are intrinsically ‘difficult’ (though sometimes they juggle with ideas on the edge of comprehension) so much as that the entire atmosphere of intense bookishness and scholarly whimsy which they evoke might well deter as many unbookish readers as it fanatically attracts fans and devotees among the literary-minded.

Contents – Fictions

Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius (1940)

Uqbar is a mythical land which the narrator and friends find mentioned in a ‘pirated’ edition of Volume XLVI of the Anglo-American Cyclopaedia, but can find referred to nowhere else, despite ransacking the reference books of numerous libraries. The article explains that the literature of Uqbar was one of fantasy, featuring epics and legends set in two imaginary regions, Mlejnas and Tlön. In part 2 of the story we learn that Tlön is less an imaginary realm than an entire ‘planet’.

At first it was believed that Tlön was a mere chaos, an irresponsible license of the imagination; now it is known that it is a cosmos and that the intimate laws which govern it have been formulated, at least provisionally

Once he has posited the existence of this ‘planet’, the narrator goes on to recount the dizzying nature of its language and its many schools of philosophy:

  • one of the schools of Tlön goes so far as to negate time: it reasons that the present is indefinite, that the future has no reality other than as a present hope, that the past has no reality other than as a present memory
  • another school declares that all time has already transpired and that our life is only the crepuscular and no
    doubt falsified and mutilated memory or reflection of an irrecoverable process
  • another, that the history of the universe — and in it our lives and the most tenuous detail of our lives — is the scripture produced by a subordinate god in order to communicate with a demon
  • another, that the universe is comparable to those cryptographs in which not all the symbols are valid and that only what happens every three hundred nights is true
  • another, that while we sleep here, we are awake elsewhere and that in this way every man is two men

This is what makes Borges’s stories so phenomenally packed and mind-bending: that each individual sentence is capable of introducing to an entirely new way of thinking about the world.

The postscript to the story describes the narrator stumbling on a letter which purports to summarise the process whereby magi in the early 17th century decided to invent a country, how the idea was handed down as the texts proliferate, till an early Victorian American decided they needed to be more ambitious and describe an entire planet. In 1914 the last volume of a projected 40-volume encyclopedia of Tlön was distributed to the cabal of experts. It is estimated it will become the Greatest Work of Mankind, but it was decided this vast undertaking would itself be the basis of an even more detailed account which was provisionally titled the Orbus Tertius. Slowly, the narrator claims, mysterious objects from Tlön have appeared in our world. This last part is set two years in the future and describes a world in which news of Tlön has become widespread and artefacts from the imaginary planet are appearing all over the world and beginning to replace our own.

The contact and the habit of Tlön have disintegrated this world…Already the schools have been invaded by the (conjectural) “primitive language” of Tlön; already the teaching of its harmonious history (filled with moving episodes) has wiped out the one which governed in my childhood; already a fictitious past occupies in our memories the place of another, a past of which we know nothing with certainty — not even that it is false… A scattered dynasty of solitary men has changed the face of the world. Their task continues. If our forecasts are not in error, a hundred years from now someone will discover the hundred volumes of the Second Encyclopedia of Tlön. Then English and French and mere Spanish will disappear from the globe. The world will be Tlön.

So it is, on a fairly obvious level, a kind of science fiction disaster story in which our world will eventually be taken over and/or destroyed by the imaginary creation of the cabal.

The Garden of Forking Paths (1941)

A story which opens with a book and is about a book. Its first sentence is:

On page 22 of Liddell Hart’s History of World War I you will read that an attack against the Serre-Montauban line by thirteen British divisions (supported by 1,400 artillery pieces), planned for the 24th of July, 1916, had to be postponed until the morning of the 29th….

The story is the account of Dr. Yu Tsun, former professor of English at the Hochschule at Tsingtao, a spy acting for the Germans, based in England, in Staffordshire, but is rumbled by a British officer, Captain Madden, so makes his way by train to the village of Ashgrove and the house of one Dr Stephen Albert, who describes the efforts of Yu’s ancestor, ‘Ts’ui Pên who was governor of Yunnan and who renounced worldly power in order to write a novel that might be even more populous than the Hung Lu Meng and to construct a labyrinth in which all men would become lost’. The story reveals that this labyrinth is metaphorical: it actually stands for the scattered manuscript of an incomplete book. The garden of forking paths is the novel promised by never completed. But the nature of the fragments is deliberate:

The Garden of Forking Paths is an incomplete, but not false, image of the universe as Ts’ui Pên conceived it. In contrast to Newton and Schopenhauer, your ancestor did not believe in a uniform, absolute time. He believed in an infinite series of times, in a growing, dizzying net of divergent, convergent and parallel times. This network of times which approached one another, forked, broke off, or were unaware of one another for centuries, embraces all possibilities of time.

So it’s about a book which encompasses all time, and all possible permutations of time.

The Lottery in Babylon (1941)

Tells the story of the development of a hyper-complex lottery run by the all-powerful ‘Company’ in a fictional version of ‘Babylon’, which ends up becoming the basis for everything which happens, for every event in everybody’s lives.

Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote (1939)

This purports to be a brief article by a follower of the now deceased writer Pierre Menard. It starts by listing the complete works of the defunct writer, some 19 in all, thus establishing the hyper-bookish context; then goes on to describe the unprecedented attempt by Pierre Menard to rewrite (sections of) Don Quixote as if by himself, as if for the first time, as if written by a 20th century author, and the complexity and strangeness of the result.

The Circular Ruins (1940)

The unnamed man arrives in a canoe from the south, beaches it in the mud and climbs to the ancient ruins.

The purpose which guided him was not impossible, though it was supernatural. He wanted to dream a man: he wanted to dream him with minute integrity and insert him into reality

He devotes years to dreaming, piece by piece, a perfect young man, who he then teaches in his dreams and who then finally becomes a real entity in the real world, who can pass painlessly though fire. But when a forest fire rages towards the ruins where he has been living the man walks boldly towards them – only not to feel a thing and to realise, that he himself is a dream-man who has been dreamed, in his turn, by someone else.

The Library of Babel (1941)

The narrator lives inside a library so huge, made up of infinite levels and extending through infinite galleries of hexagonal rooms, that he and all the other inhabitants regard it as the known universe. From this perspective, of an inhabitant of the infinite library, he shares with us the discoveries and/or theories of various other inhabitants who, through the centuries, have explored deeper into the infinite library, made discoveries and come up with theories as to its origin and purpose, for example the theories of the idealists (‘the hexagonal rooms are a necessary form of absolute space’) or the mystics (‘The mystics claim that their ecstasy reveals to them a circular chamber containing a great circular book, whose spine is continuous and which follows the complete circle of the walls’) origin stories (‘Man, the imperfect librarian, may be the product of chance or of malevolent demiurgi’), those who have given up trying to find meaning (‘I know of an uncouth region whose librarians repudiate the vain and superstitious custom of finding a meaning in books and equate it with that of finding a meaning in dreams or in the chaotic lines of one’s palm’).

Five hundred years before his birth the momentous discovery was made that the library contains all possible combinations of their language’s 25 symbols, in other words, contains all human knowledge, and much more, contains the history and future of everyone. This led to a wave of optimism and pride. This gave rise to a category of men named inquisitors who travel far and wide in search of these phantom volumes which will explain everything, and are named the Vindications. This was followed by the depressing realisation that, although these books certainly exist, in a library infinitely large anyone’s chances of finding them are infinitely small. Which gave rise to a semi-religious movement of nihilists, the Purifiers, who set out to examine and destroy all books which are not Vindications. But even their senseless destruction of millions of books made little difference in a library which is infinite in size.

The knowledge that everything has already been written has had a negative effect. Some have become religious hysterics. Suicides have become more common. The population of the hexagonal rooms has been depleted. He wonders whether the human species will be extinguished.

Funes the Memorious (1942)

Ireneo Funes was a dark, Indian-looking man from Uruguay. He died in 1889. The author of this piece is contributing a memoir of him to a volume to be published in his honour. Funes was a perfectly ordinary young man till a horse threw him aged 19. From that point onwards, he remembers everything which happens to him, every single impression, sight, sound and smell which his senses register, is recorded in the fine instrument of his memmory.

The two projects I have indicated (an infinite vocabulary for the natural series of numbers, a useless mental catalogue of all the images of his memory) combine in this dazzling idea. Not just memory, he notices everything.

He was the solitary and lucid spectator of a multiform, instantaneous and almost intolerably precise world

And the ‘story’, really an essay based on a fictional premise, explores what it would mean to live in this state.

To think is to forget differences, generalize, make abstractions. In the teeming world of Funes, there were only details, almost immediate in their presence.

The Shape of the Sword (1942)

Not a bookish brain-teaser, this is a much more straightforward story. The narrator, who is referred to as Borges, is forced when travelling in the North to stay in the house of a man who has a reputation as a martinet and occasional drunk who is disfigured by a half-moon-shaped scar on his forehead. The man treats Borges to dinner then they get talking and finally the man tells him his story: how he was a fighter with the IRA during the Irish Civil War, and helped mentor and protect a vehement young recruit, one John Vincent Moon, a committed communist who shut down every discussion with his fervent ideology. On a patrol they were caught by a guard who shot and nicked Moon’s shoulder. They break into the abandoned house of an old Indian officer, to hide out. When the town they were hiding in was taken by the Black and Tans, he returned to the house to overhear Moon betraying him to the authorities on the promise of his own safe passage, whereupon he chased Moon round the house brandishing one of the swords belonging to its absent owner until he caught him and branded his face with the half moon with a sword.

All through the story you’d been led to believe the narrator was the strong man. Only at the end does he break down and confess that it was he who was the betraying coward, John Vincent Moon. And hence the scar cut into his face.

Theme of the Traitor and the Hero (1944)

A very short story which foregrounds its own fictiveness, as Borges admits it’s an idea for a story which could be set anywhere, then arbitrarily settles on Ireland where, he says, a man named Ryan is researching the famous assassination of an eminent Irish patriot, his great-grandfather, Fergus Kilpatrick, in a theatre in 1824. His researches show him that Kilpatrick’s assassination shared many details with that of Julius Caesar, the parallels so eerie that for a while he develops a theory of ‘the existence of a secret form of time, a pattern of repeated lines’, and invokes the theories of Condorcet, Hegel, Spengler and Vico to back him up.

But then a stranger reality emerges. He discovers the oldest and closest of Kilpatrick’s companions, James Alexander Nolan, had translated the main plays of Shakespeare back in 1814. Finally the story that emerges is this: the conspirators kept being betrayed to the police so Kilpatrick had tasked his oldest comrade, Nolan, with identifying the traitor. At a secret meeting of the patriots Nolan announced that it was Kilpatrick himself. The great patriot admitted it. They discussed how to deal with him. They came up with a drama, a play, a theatrical event, which would ensure Kilpatrick’s punishment and death, and yet if he was said to have been assassinated at the theatre, people’s illusions about him, and the Cause in general, would be preserved. And so Nolan, the Shakespeare translator, arranged it all, even borrowing certain events (the unheeded warning) in order to make the ‘assassination’ more melodramatic and memorable.

And also, his disillusioned great grandson and biographer speculates, to leave messages to posterity. Some of the allusions were pretty crass. Maybe he, Ryan, was intended to discover the truth. After weighing the pros and cons, Ryan decides to suppress what he has learned, and write a straightforward biography climaxing in the great man’s tragic assassination. Maybe that, too, was part of the plan.

Death and the Compass (1942)

This is a murder mystery of a particularly arch and contrived tone, but reading it makes you realise Borges’s debt to the English yarn tellers of the 1890s, to Robert Louis Stevenson and especially Conan Doyle. We are introduced to Erik Lönnrot, another in the long line of hyper-intellectual freelance detectives with a taste for paradox and irony i.e. an entirely literary creation, who also, as per the tradition, plays off a phlegmatic police inspector, Franz Treviranus.

At the Third Talmudic Congress held in the Hotel du Nord, Rabbi Marcel Yarmolinsky goes to bed one night and his body is found dead, stabbed in the chest, the next morning. The dead man, of course, had a number of rare and arcane books of theology in his room. Which Lönnrot takes away and reads:

One large octavo volume revealed to him the teachings of Israel Baal Shem Tobh, founder of the sect of the Pious; another, the virtues and terrors of the Tetragrammaton, which is the unutterable name of God; another, the thesis that God has a secret name, in which is epitomized (as in the crystal sphere which the Persians ascribe to Alexander of Macedonia) his ninth attribute, eternity — that is to say, the immediate knowledge of all things that will be, which are and which have been in the universe…

Books books books. But then more bodies turn up dead – small-time crook Daniel Simon Azevedo, then the kidnapping and murder of one Gryphius. We know the three murders are linked because at the scene three sentences are written, ‘The first letter of the Name has been uttered’, and the second and the third.

After the third the police are anonymously sent a letter sent by ‘Baruch Spinoza’ asserting that a fourth murder will not be carried out. But Lönnrot has seen through all this. He Dandy Red Scharlach set out

to weave a labyrinth around the man who had imprisoned my brother. I have woven it and it is firm: the ingredients are a dead heresiologist, a compass, an eighteenth-century sect, a Greek word, a dagger, the diamonds of a paint shop.

The Secret Miracle (1943)

Hladik had rounded forty. Aside from a few friendships and many habits, the problematic exercise of literature constituted his life…

Jaromir Hladik is an author of, among others, an unfinished drama entitled The Enemies, of Vindication of Eternity (which discusses immutable Being of Parmenides, the modifiable Past of Hinton, and the idealist philosopher, Francis Bradley) and of a study of the indirect Jewish sources of Jakob Böhme, he has translated the Sepher Yezirah and published studies of the work of Böhme, of Ibn Ezra, and of Fludd. He is another of Borges’s hyper-bookish heroes.

The Nazis take Prague and seize Hladik who is identified as a Jewish author and condemned to death. The story deals with the feverishly philosophical ideas which flood his mind during the days and nights he spends in his prison cell leading up to his sentence of death by firing squad, in which he discusses with himself various aspects of time and reality and God, and has a dream that God’s word is vouchsafed to him through a random book in a library, and in which he goes through the elaborate plot of his verse drama, The Enemies, which is itself a drama about reality and illusion. He begs God for a year to finish the work in order to justify himself and Him.

Finally he is led out to the shabby yard where the soldiers are hanging round bored, are rallied by their sergeant and line up to shoot him but, just as the order is given, time freezes, completely, but Hladik’s consciousness continues, observing the frozen world about him from his frozen body, at first in panic, and then realising that God heard his plea and has given him a year to complete his drama. And the final page of the drama describes how he does that, not needing food or water or bodily functions, but devoting a year of time to bringing the verse drama to complete perfection, And as the last phrase of it is completed in his mind, the world resumes, the firing squad fires, and Hladik slumps, dead.

Three Versions of Judas (1944)

Borges’s fiction is above all hyper-bookish, made out of references to arcane philosophical or theological texts from the Middle Ages or Antiquity. Most (if not quite all) the ‘stories’ mimic the style and approach of an old-fashioned scholarly article, not least in having textual footnotes which cite other scholarly volumes or references.

Instead of a description of a city or house or street or natural location, a time of day, or the physical appearance of a protagonist, Borges’s fictions set their scene amid books and references.

In Asia Minor or in Alexandria, in the second century of our faith, when Basilides disseminated the idea that the cosmos was the reckless or evil improvisation of deficient angels, Nils Runeberg would have directed, with singular intellectual passion, one of the Gnostic conventicles. Dante would have assigned him, perhaps, a fiery grave; his name would extend the list of lesser heresiarchs, along with Satornilus and Carpocrates; some fragment of his preachings, embellished with invective, would survive in the apocryphal Liber adversus omnes haereses or would have perished when the burning of a monastery library devoured the last copy of the Syntagma. Instead, God afforded Runeberg the twentieth century and the university town of Lund. There, in 1904, he published the first edition of Kristus och Judas and, in 1909, his major book, Den hemlige Frälsaren. (Of the latter there is a German translation, made in 1912 by Emil Schering; it is called Der heimliche Heiland.)

Amid a dense forest of allusions to obscure works of theology and scores of beliefs held by the orthodox and heretical, Borges articulates the three theories developed by Danish theologian, namely:

  1. In his book Kristus och Judas, Runeberg asserts that Judas was a kind of ‘reflection’ of Jesus in the human world; just as Jesus was sent from heaven, so Judas took up the burden of being human in order to pave the way for Jesus to take the path to the crucifixion and salvation of humanity.
  2. Meeting fierce criticism from fellow theologians, Runeberg rewrites the book to assert that it was Judas who sacrificed more than Jesus, mortifying his spirit for the greater good.
  3. Then in his final book, Den hemlige Frälsaren, Runeberg develops this idea to its logical conclusion, which is that it was Judas not Jesus who made the ultimate sacrifice and truly laid down his life for humanity. Jesus hung on the cross for 6 hours but then he was translated to heaven, whereas Judas committed suicide, taking upon himself not only an eternal reputation for treachery and betrayal, but condemning his own soul to eternity in hell. Which one made the greater sacrifice? Therefore, Runeberg asserts, it was Judas who was the true incarnation of a God determined to make the most complete identification with humanity possible, even to the uttermost depths of human depravity and damnation.

The Sect of the Phoenix (1952)

Those who write that the sect of the Phoenix had its origin in Heliopolis and derive it from the religious restoration following upon the death of the reformer Amenophis IV, cite texts from Herodotus, Tacitus and the monuments of Egypt, but they ignore, or prefer to ignore, that the designation ‘Phoenix’ does not date before Hrabanus Maurus and that the oldest sources (the Saturnales of Flavius Josephus, let us say) speak only of the People of the Custom or of the People of the Secret.

Repeatedly the stories invoke the same kind of imaginative world, a world of arcane books and abstruse learning, which revolves not so much around pure philosophy – the academic subject of Philosophy which concerns rather mundane discussions of language or ethics which bothered Plato and Locke – but the swirling multi-coloured world of abstruse theologies and mystical visions of the divinity and cults and lost texts, of heresiarchs (‘the founder of a heresy or the leader of a heretical sect’) and patriarchs, sectarians and mystagogues, Talmudists and Confucians, Gnostics and alchemists, adepts in secret rituals and concealed knowledge, and which has adherents down to the present day such as the heretical theologian Nils Runeberg from The Three Versions of Judas or the learned Rabbi Marcel Yarmolinsky in Death and The Compass, intense bookish eccentric figures who carry the convoluted world of medieval theology into obscure corners of our workaday world.

This brief story is an ostensible short scholarly essay by a narrator who claims:

I have collated accounts by travelers, I have conversed with patriarchs and theologians… I have attained on three continents the friendship of many devotees of the Phoenix

And so is in a position to know that devotees of ‘the sect of the Phoenix’ are everywhere, of all creeds and colours, speaking all languages, often not even realising it themselves. I think the essay is an answer to the question, What if there was a religion so widespread that its adherents didn’t even realise they followed it?

The Immortal (1949)

A princess (!) buys a second hand edition of Alexander Pope’s translation of The Iliad off a book dealer, Joseph Cartaphilus, in London and later finds in the leaves of the last volume a manuscript, which then makes up the body of the story. It is a first person narrative by Marcus Flaminius Rufus, military tribune of one of Rome’s legions, who hears rumours of a land to the West where sits the City of the Immortals and so sets off with a troop of 200 soldiers and sundry mercenaries all of whom desert him in the face of all kinds of adversity, until he comes to consciousness in a settlement of speechless troglodytes before staggering on, exhausted, hungry, thirsty towards a high rocky plateau on which is built a mysterious city, but when he finally gains entrance he discovers it is not only abandoned and deserted, but built with an excess of useless passages and windows and balconies and details amid he becomes lost and then overwhelmed by its size and complexity and horrifying pointlessness.

When he emerges he discovers one of the speechless troglodytes has followed him like a loyal dog. He nicknames him Argos after Odysseus’s loyal dog and over the next few weeks tries to teach him to speak. Then, one day, there is a ferocious downpour of rain, and Argos suddenly speaks, responds to the name, recognises the classical allusion and, to the narrator’s astonishment, reveals that he is Homer, author of the Iliad and the Odyssey and that the other haggard, grimy, speechless troglodytes, they are the Immortals, who long ago wrecked their beautiful city, rebuilding it as a surrealist testament to the unknown and irrational forces which control our fates, and withdrew to the caves and lives of inarticulate resignation.

Because he has drunk of the river that runs past the troglodytes’ caves he is now immortal and the narrative briefly covers his wandering life for the following centuries, until in 1929 he drinks from a stream in Eritrea and realises, with enormous relief, that it has restored his mortality.

The Theologians (1947)

An orgy of theological minutiae describing the academic rivalry between two sixth century theologians, Aurelian of Aquileia and John of Pannonia, who compete with each other in refuting the heresy of the so-called Monotones (namely that history is cyclical and all people and events recur again and again), which twists via a dense undergrowth of theological quotes and references to a climax in which Aurelian witnesses John being burned at the stake for the very heresy he had set out to refute, and then the two rival theologians meet up in heaven where, in true Borgesian fashion, they are revealed to be two aspects of the same person.

Story of the Warrior and the Captive (1940)

Droctulft was an eighth century Lombard warrior who, during the siege of Ravenna, left his companions and died defending the city he had previously attacked. Borges imagines this pallid denizen of the pagan forests and the boar hunt arriving at a city, his dazzlement at the order and clarity and architecture and gardens, and suddenly throwing in his lot with the citizens, fighting against his former comrades.

And this reminds him of his grandmother who was from England. She lived out on the borderlands. One day she was introduced to a young woman Indian who, it transpires, was English, from Yorkshire, her parents emigrated and were killed in an Indian raid and she was stolen away and married to a chieftain who she has already borne two children. Borges’s grandmother offers to take her away, to return her to civilisation, but the Englishwoman-gone-native refuses. She, like Droctulft, has made a deep choice.

Emma Zunz (1948)

Emma’s father commits suicide because he was swindled out of his share of the factory he set up. She vows to be revenged on the swindler, Aaron Loewenthal (all the characters in this story are Jewish) and, a shy 19, dresses up, goes hanging round in bars, in order to lose her virginity to some rough foreigner. This is to nerve her for the assassination, when she presents herself to Loewenthal in the guise of a stoolpigeon for the ringleaders of the disgruntled workers in the factory but, when he rises to fetch her a glass of water, impulsively shoots him, though she’s not very good at it and takes three shots. She then calls the police and pleads a story that Lowenthal tried to rape and outrage her, which, Borges says, is true, in spirit if not in detail, and her genuine outrage and sense of shame and hate secures her an acquittal at her subsequent trial.

The House of Asterion (1947)

The world seen from the perspective of the Minotaur. (The idea is related to the brief one-page summary Borges gives of a story he planned to write about the world seen from the point of view of Fafnir, the gold-guarding dragon in the Nibelung legend. You can see how you could quickly generate a list of stories ‘from the point of’ figures from myth and legend.)

Deutsches Requiem (1946)

Otto Dietrich zur Linde is a Nazi and a devout follower of Schopenhauer and his doctrine that nothing that happens to us is accidental (it is a happy coincidence that I’ve recently been reading Samuel Beckett, who was also very influenced by Schopenhauer, in particular by his attitude of quietism).

As the Second World War breaks out Otto Dietrich zur Linde is involved in a shootout which leads to the amputation of one of his legs. As a good Nazi he is eventually rewarded by being made, in 1941, subdirector of the concentration camp at Tarnowitz.

When the wonderful Jewish poet David Jerusalem is sent to the camp, zur Linde sets about systematically destroying him because, by doing so, he is destroying the compassion in his own soul which keeps him down among ordinary humans, prevents him from becoming Nietzsche’s Overman.

As the tide of war turns against the Germans, zur Linde speculates why and what it means before realising that Germany itself must be destroyed so that the New Order it has helped to inaugurate can come fully into being. This short text turns into quite a disturbing hymn to Nazism:

Many things will have to be destroyed in order to construct the New Order; now we know that Germany also was one of those things. We have given more than our lives, we have sacrificed the destiny of our beloved Fatherland. Let others curse and weep; I rejoice in the fact that our destiny completes its circle and is perfect.

Averroes’ Search (1947)

A classic example of Borges’s fascination with the byways of medieval mystical theology, and his ability to spin narratives out of it.

Abulgualid Muhammad Ibn-Ahmad ibn-Muhammad ibnRushd (a century this long name would take to become Averroes, first becoming Benraist and Avenryz and even Aben-Rassad and Filius Rosadis) was writing the eleventh chapter of his work Tahafut-ulTahafut (Destruction of Destruction), in which it is maintained, contrary to the Persian ascetic Ghazali, author of the Tahafut-ulfalasifa (Destruction of Philosophers), that the divinity knows only the general laws of the universe, those pertaining to the species, not to the individual…

It is a complex text, woven with multiple levels of references, which revolves round a dinner party attended in the then-Muslim city of Cordoba in Muslim Spain by the great medieval Muslim commentator on the ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle, and some colleagues and friends including one who claims to have travelled as far as the fabled land of Sin (China). When he was there he recounts being taken to a large hall with tiered banks of seats where many people on a raised platform acted out events. The other diners agree how ridiculous this sounds and we learn that, apparently, the traditions and culture of Islam did not have or understand the entire concept of the theatre and the drama.

The essay focuses on the way this conversation was relevant for Averroes because he was that day working on a translation of Aristotle and puzzled by two words he had come across, ‘tragedy’ and ‘comedy’ which have no parallel in the world of Islam.

This is all fascinating and beautifully described amid the gardens and roses and civilised calm of the Muslim city, but on the last half page Borges twists the story onto a different level altogether by intruding himself as the author and declaring he only told this story as an attempt to describe a certain kind of failure to imagine something, and that, as the story progressed, he, Borges, realised that he was failing to imagine his own story, thus the story and the writing of the story, both addressed the same subject, in a kind of duet.

I felt, on the last page, that my narration was a symbol of the man I was as I wrote it and that, in order to compose that narration, I had to be that man and, in order to be that man, I had to compose that narration, and so on to infinity. (The moment I cease to believe in him, ‘Averroes’ disappears.)

Wow.

The Zahir (1947)

Clementina Villar was a model and celebrity, always appearing at the right place at the right time dressed in the height of fashion. She dies in a slummy suburb and Borges attends her wake. Decomposition makes her look younger. On the rebound from his grief he drops into a neighbourhood bar, orders a brandy and is given the Zahir among his change. The Zahir is an everyday coin but:

people (in Muslim territories) use it to signify ‘beings or things which possess the terrible property of being unforgettable, and whose image finally drives one mad.’

He can’t stop looking at it, he takes it home, he turns it over and over, it obsesses his sleep, eventually he gets lots in a maze of streets, slips into another bar and pays for a drink handing the coin over, goes home and has his first good night’s sleep in weeks.

The Waiting (1950)

An unnamed man checks into a boarding house in a suburb of Buenos Aires and tries to lead a completely anonymous life while he waits for his assassins to track him down and kill him.

The God’s Script

The story is told by Tzinacán, magician of the pyramid of Qaholom, an Aztec priest whose city was conquered and burned down by the conquistador Pedro de Alvarado who tortured and mangled him to try and extract the secret of where all the native gold and treasure was hidden. Now he lies in a dungeon where he has been subsisting for years, but it is a strange prison because on the other side of the wall is kept a jaguar which paces up and down in his cell. Only at certain hours of the day, when the light is right, can Tzinacán see it. Over the years Tzinacán becomes obsessed with the idea that his god Qaholom must have foreseen the disaster which overcame his people,

The god, foreseeing that at the end of time there would be devastation and ruin, wrote on the first day of Creation a magical sentence with the power to ward off those evils. He wrote it in such a way that it would reach the most distant generations and not be subject to chance. No one knows where it was written nor with what characters, but it is certain that it exists, secretly, and that a chosen one shall read it.

So it is another story about a kind of secret knowledge, known only to adepts, occult and hidden. To cut a long story short, Tzinacán has a revelation which is indistinguishable from going mad, as he ponders the nature of this message from the gods, as he ponders at length what the language of a god would be like, how it would contain the whole world, not even in a sentence, but in one infinite word, and he suddenly perceives it in the shape of an infinite wheel, on all sides of him, made of fire and water, the secret of the world is contained in fourteen words of forty syllables, if he said them out loud the prison would disappear and he would be master of the land of Moctezuma – but he never will because he has ceased to be Tzinacán, he has ceased to have his concerns or aims, and therefore he knows the secret of divine power, but the very knowledge of it means he never has to use it.

Essays

The Argentine Writer and Tradition (1951)

The problems of national identity and literary heritage faced by the writer in Argentina are not something most of us have spent much time worrying about. Reading Borges’s essay on the subject mostly confirms that I know nothing whatsoever about Latin American literature. For my generation this meant entirely the magical realism school pioneered by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and a cluster of related writers such as Mario Vargas Llosa and, fashionable among feminists, Isabel Allende. I’m fairly well read but I’d never heard of any of the names or works Borges refers to, for example I had no idea the great Argentine epic poem is El gaucho Martín Fierro by Jose Hernandez which is, apparently, packed with gaucho colloquialisms.

Initially the essay dwells on obscure questions about the relative merits of ‘gauchesque’ poetry (which he takes to be the contrived nationalistic poetry of literary circles of Buenos Aires) vis-a-vis the poetry of payadas (improvised musical dialogues on philosophical themes which reveal their true nationalism precisely by the absence of localising dialect) but both of which are almost meaningless to me since I can’t read Spanish and had never heard of Martín Fierro. (Borges had published in 1950 a study of the gauchesque, Aspectos de la literatura gauchesca and in 1953 an essay on Martín Fierro.)

But slowly emerges his main point which is more comprehensible, namely that ‘national’ poetry or literature does not at all need to limit itself to local colour and national subjects: witness Shakespeare who wrote about Italians and Danes, and Racine whose works are entirely set in the world of Greek myth. Thus:

The idea that Argentine poetry should abound in differential Argentine traits and Argentine local colour seems to me a mistake.

In Borges’s opinion, there are other elements of the Argentine character which distinguish their literature, among which he mentions: ‘ the Argentine’s reticence, his constraint’, ‘Argentine reserve, distrust and reticence, of the difficulty we have in making confessions, in revealing our intimate nature’. In demonstrating the unnecessity of having local colour, he cites the fact (observed by Gibbon) that there are no references to camels in the Koran. This is because Mohammed, as an Arab, so lived in the culture of camels that he didn’t even have to mention them. That is how local colour should be conveyed – by the subtlety of its absence. Thus when Borges reads Argentine nationalists prescribing that Argentine writers should write about the Argentine national scene using local colour and local words, he thinks they are dead wrong.

He goes on to speculate about the role of the Jews in European literature, and the Irish in English literature, both of which are over-represented, and it’s because they are outsiders and so not tied by tradition; they can be innovators.

For that reason I repeat that we should not be alarmed and that we should feel that our patrimony is the universe; we should essay all themes, and we cannot limit ourselves to purely Argentine subjects in order to be Argentine; for either being Argentine is an inescapable act of fate — and in that case we shall be so in all events — or being Argentine is a mere affectation, a mask.

(In Labyrinths this appears as rather a one-off work, but in fact Borges wrote extensively throughout his career on Argentine subject matter, including Argentine culture (‘History of the Tango’, ‘Inscriptions on Horse Wagons’), folklore (‘Juan Muraña’, ‘Night of the Gifts’), literature (‘The Argentine Writer and Tradition’, ‘Almafuerte’, ‘Evaristo Carriego’), and national concerns (‘Celebration of the Monster’, ‘Hurry, Hurry’, ‘The Mountebank’, ‘Pedro Salvadores’).

The Wall and the Books

A meditation on the fact that the Chinese emperor, Shih Huang Ti, who commissioned the building of the Great Wall but also ordered the burning of all the books and libraries. It allows Borges one of his characteristic series of dreamy speculations. It is recorded that Shih Huang Ti’s mother was a libertine whom he banished. Maybe burning the books was a symbolically Freudian attempt to abolish the entire past which contained his personal shame. Maybe the wall was a psychological wall to keep out his guilt. He also forbade death to be mentioned and sought an elixir for immortality, so maybe fire and wall were to keep death at bay. If he ordered the building of the wall first then the burning of the books, we have the image of an emperor who set out to create, gave up, and resigned himself to destroying; if the order is reverse, we have the image of an emperor who set out to destroy everything, gave up, and dedicated himself to endless building. Dreamy speculations:

Perhaps the wall was a metaphor, perhaps Shih Huang Ti sentenced those who worshiped the past to a task as immense, as gross and as useless as the past itself. Perhaps the wall was a challenge and Shih Huang Ti thought: “Men love the past and neither I nor my executioners can do anything against that love, but someday there will be a man who feels as I do and he will efface my memory and be my shadow and my mirror and not know it.” Perhaps Shih Huang Ti walled in his empire because he knew that it was perishable and destroyed the books because he understood that they were sacred books, in other words, books that teach what the entire universe or the mind of every man teaches. Perhaps the burning of the libraries and the erection of the wall are operations which in some secret way cancel each other.

A lazy Sunday afternoon of perhapses. The essay ends with a thunderclap, the notion that the way these two contrasting facts seem about to deliver some kind of revelation which never, in fact, arrives, the sense of a great meaning, which is never made clear:

this imminence of a revelation which does not occur is, perhaps, the aesthetic phenomenon.

The Fearful Sphere of Pascal

‘It may be that universal history is the history of a handful of metaphors.’ In which case he is examining one particular metaphor, that of the infinite sphere whose centre is nowhere, and pursues it through the works of Xenophanes of Colophon, Plato, Parmenides, Empedocles, Alain de Lille, the Romance of the Rose, Rabelais, Dante, Copernicus, Giordano Bruno, John Donne, John Milton, Glanville, Robert South, Pascal.

This very brief trot through the different expressions of the same metaphor suggest very strongly a sense of the rise and rise in optimism in human thought up to a kind of breakthrough in the Renaissance, summed up in Bruno’s attitude, which then crumbles into the sense of fear and isolation expressed by Pascal. I.e. this tiny essay gives a powerful sense of the changing moods and contexts of Western civilisation.

Partial Magic in the Quixote

It starts by asserting that Cervantes set out to write an utterly disenchanted account of the sordid reality of the Spain of his day yet certain moments of magic and romance nonetheless intrude; but this fairly simple point then unfolds into something much stranger as Borges zeroes in on the fact that in part two of Don Quixote the characters have read part one and comment on their own existence as characters. Borges then lists a number of other examples of fictions which appear within themselves such the Ramayana of Valmiki which, late on, features an appearance of the Ramayana of Valmiki as a major part of the plot. Similarly, on the 602nd night of the Thousand and One Nights, Scheherezade summarises the history of the king which includes his encounter with her and her telling of the stories which make up the nights, including the telling of the 602nd night, which includes the telling of the king’s own story, which includes his meeting with her and her telling of all the stories over again, including the telling of the 602nd night, and so on, forever.

What is it that intrigues and disturbs us about these images of infinite recursion?

I believe I have found the reason: these inversions suggest that if the characters of a fictional work can be readers or spectators, we, its readers or spectators, can be fictitious.

Valéry as Symbol

This brief note appears to be an obituary for the French poet Paul Valéry who died in 1945. Borges takes the surprising tack of comparing the French poet with the American poet Walt Whitman. On the face of it no two figures could be more different, Whitman loud, brash, confident, chaotic, contradictory, is morning in America, while Valéry, careful, sensitive, discreet, reflects the ‘delicate twilight’ of Europe. What they have in common is they created fictional images of themselves, made themselves symbolic of particular approaches.

Paul Valéry leaves us at his death the symbol of a man infinitely sensitive to every phenomenon and for whom every phenomenon is a stimulus capable of provoking an infinite series of thoughts.. Of a man whose admirable texts do not exhaust, do not even define, their all-embracing possibilities. Of a man who, in an age that worships the chaotic idols of blood, earth and passion, preferred always the lucid pleasures of thought and the secret adventures of order.

Kafka and His Precursors

A sketch at identifying precursors of Kafka’s ‘atrocious thought’, Borges finds precursors in Zeno’s paradoxes; in the ninth century Chinese writer, Han Yu; Kierkegaard; a poem by Browning; a short story by Léon Bloy; and one by Lord Dunsany. We would never have noticed the Kafkaesque in all these texts had Kafka not created it. Thus each author modifies our understanding of all previous writing.

The fact is that every writer creates his own precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future.

Avatars of the Tortoise

There is a concept which corrupts and upsets all others. I refer not to Evil, whose limited realm is that of ethics; I refer to the infinite.

He tells us that he once meditated a Biography of the Infinite but it would have taken forever to write. (Borges did in fact publish Historia de la eternidad in 1936.) Instead he gives us this fragment, a surprisingly thorough and mathematically-minded meditation on the second paradox of Zeno, the tortoise and Achilles. It is an intimidating trot through philosophers from the ancient Greek to F.H. Bradley and Bertrand Russell, in each one finding reformulations of the same problem in logic and various ways round it.

Only in the concluding paragraph does it become a bit more accessible when Borges brings out the meaning of Idealistic philosophy, that the world may be entirely the product of our minds and, as so often, ends on a bombshell of an idea:

We (the undivided divinity operating within us) have dreamt the world. We have dreamt it as firm, mysterious, visible, ubiquitous in space and durable in time; but in its architecture we have allowed tenuous and eternal crevices of unreason which tell us it is false.

In this view, Zeno’s paradoxes are among a putative small collection of problems or paradoxes or unnerving insights which are like cracks in the surface of the world we have made, cracks which gives us a glimpse of the utterly fictitious nature of ‘reality’.

The Mirror of Enigmas

A note on the verse from the Bible, First Letter to the Corinthians 13:12 in which Saint Paul writes: ‘For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.’ He considers half a dozen meditations on it by the author Léon Bloy which I found obscure. I preferred the final passage where he describes the thinking underlying the intellectual activity of the Cabbalists:

Bloy did no more than apply to the whole of Creation the method which the Jewish Cabalists applied to the Scriptures. They thought that a work dictated by the Holy Spirit was an absolute text: in other words, a text in which the collaboration of chance was calculable as zero. This portentous premise of a book impenetrable to contingency, of a book which is a mechanism of infinite purposes, moved them to permute the scriptural words, add up the numerical value of the letters, consider their form, observe the small letters and capitals, seek acrostics and anagrams and perform other exegetical rigours which it is not difficult to ridicule. Their excuse is that nothing can be contingent in the work of an infinite mind

A Note on (toward) Bernard Shaw

A book is more than a verbal structure or series of verbal structures; it is the dialogue it establishes with its reader and the intonation it imposes upon his voice and the changing and durable images it leaves in his memory. This dialogue is infinite… Literature is not exhaustible, for the sufficient and simple reason that no single book is. A book is not an isolated being: it is a relationship, an axis of innumerable relationships…

I didn’t quite understand the thrust of this essay which begins by refuting the notion that literature is purely a game, and asserts that it involves and tone of voice and relationship with a reader, and then seems to go on to say that this is in some measure proven by the works of George Bernard Shaw whose philosophy may be derivative (Butler and Schopenhauer) but whose prolific invention of character is unprecedented in his time. The sardonic Irishman is an odd choice for the sly Argentinian to single out for praise.

A New Refutation of Time

Consists of two essays written in the 1940s. They are complex and hard to follow but I think he begins with the philosophical doctrine of Idealism which claims the human mind consists of a succession of sense perceptions and doesn’t require there to be a ‘real world’ out there, behind them all. Borges is, I think, trying to go one step further and assert that there need not be a succession of sense perceptions, there is no logical necessity for these impressions to be in the series which we call time. There is only the present, we can only exist in the present, therefore there is no time.

Parables

A series of very short thoughts, images, moments or insights which inspire brief narratives pregnant with meaning or symbolism. Kafka, of course, also wrote modern parables, parables with no religious import but fraught with psychological meaning.

Inferno, 1, 32

God sends a leopard kept in a cage in late 13th century Italy a dream in which he explains that his existence, his life history and his presence in the zoo are all necessary so that the poet Dante will see him and place him at the opening of his poem, The Divine Comedy.

Paradiso, XXXI, 108

Who of us has never felt, while walking through the twilight or writing a date from his past, that something infinite had been lost?

Maybe the mysterious thing which St Paul and the mystics saw and could not communicate appears to all of us every day, in the face of the street lottery ticket seller. Perhaps the face of Jesus was never recorded so that it could become the face of all of us.

Ragnarök

He has a dream. He was in the School of Philosophy and Letters chatting with friends when a group breaks free from the mob below to cries of ‘The gods! The gods’ who take up their place on the dais after centuries of exile. But during that time they have become rough and inhuman, they cannot actually talk but squeak and grunt.

Centuries of fell and fugitive life had atrophied the human element in them; the moon of Islam and the cross of Rome had been implacable with these outlaws. Very low foreheads, yellow teeth, stringy mulatto or Chinese moustaches and thick bestial lips showed the degeneracy of the Olympian lineage. Their clothing corresponded not to a decorous poverty but rather to the sinister luxury of the gambling houses and brothels of the Bajo. A carnation bled crimson in a lapel and the bulge of a knife was outlined beneath a close-fitting jacket. Suddenly we sensed that they were playing their last card, that they were cunning, ignorant and cruel like old beasts of prey and that, if we let ourselves be overcome by fear or pity, they would finally destroy us. We took out our heavy revolvers (all of a sudden there were revolvers in the dream) and joyfully killed the Gods.

Parable of Cervantes and the Quixote

How could Miguel de Cervantes ever have guessed that his attempt to mock and undermine the glorious myths of the Age of Chivalry in his fictitious character, Don Quixote, would itself become a larger-than-life myth? (Well, anyone who has studied a bit of human nature and knows that humans are the myth-making species, constantly rounding out narratives, creating stories which explain everything in which larger-than-life figures either cause all evil or all good.)

The Witness

Borges imagines the last pagan Anglo-Saxon, the last eye-witness of the sacrifices to the pagan gods, living on into the new age of Christianity. What memories and meanings will be lost at his death? Which makes him reflect on what will be lost when he himself dies.

A Problem

A very abstruse problem: Cervantes derives Don Quixote from an Arab precursor, the Cide Hamete Benengeli. Imagine a scrap of manuscript is discovered in which his knightly hero discovers that in one of his fantastical conflicts he has actually killed a man. How would Quixote respond? And Borges imagines four possible responses.

Borges and I

The narrator, Borges, speculates about the other Borges. On a first reading I take this to be the Borges of literature, the Borges who both writes the stories and is conjured into existence by the stories, who is not the same as the flesh and blood Borges who walks the streets.

Little by little, I am giving over everything to him, though I am quite aware of his perverse custom of falsifying and magnifying things

Everything and Nothing

A moving and beautiful meditation on the life of William Shakespeare which paints him as a hollow man, plagued by his own emptiness, who seeks to fill it with books, then with sex with an older woman (marriage to Anne Hathaway), moving to the big city, and involvement in about the most hurly-burly of professions, acting, before someone suggests he writes plays as well as acting in them, and he fills his soul with hundreds of characters, giving them undreamed-of speeches and feelings, before, an exhausted middle aged man he retires back to his provincial birthplace, and renounces all poetry for the gritty reality of lawsuits and land deals before dying young.

In a fantastical coda, he arrives in heaven and complains to God that all he wants is to have an identity, to be a complete man instead of a hollow man, but God surprises him with his reply.

After dying he found himself in the presence of God and told Him: ‘I who have been so many men in vain want to be one and myself.’ The voice of the Lord answered from a whirlwind: ‘Neither am I anyone; I have dreamt the world as you dreamt your work, my Shakespeare, and among the forms in my dream are you, who like myself are many and no one.’


Labyrinths

A labyrinth is a structure compounded to confuse men; its architecture, rich in symmetries, is subordinated to that end. (The Immortal)

The choice of this word for the title of the volume is no accident. The metaphor of the labyrinth, referring to endless tangles of intellectual speculation, crops up in most of the stories and many of the essays. It is a founding metaphor of his work.

  • Tlön is surely a labyrinth, but it is a labyrinth devised by men, a labyrinth destined to be deciphered by men.
  • Haslam has also published A General History of Labyrinths
  • I have some understanding of labyrinths: not for nothing am I the great grandson of that Ts’ui Pên who was governor of Yunnan and who renounced worldly power in order to write a novel that might be even more populous than the Hung Lu Meng and to construct a labyrinth in which all men would become lost.
  • I thought of a labyrinth of labyrinths, of one sinuous spreading labyrinth that would encompass the past and the future and in some way involve the stars
  • Once initiated in the mysteries of Baal, every free man automatically participated in the sacred drawings, which took place in the labyrinths of the god every sixty nights (Babylon)
  • Another [book] (very much consulted in this area) is a mere labyrinth of letters (Babel)
  • He is rescued from these circular labyrinths by a curious finding, a finding which then sinks him into other, more inextricable and heterogeneous labyrinths (Theme of the Traitor and the Hero)
  • I felt that the world was a labyrinth, from which it was impossible to flee… (Death and the Compass)
  • On those nights I swore by the God who sees with two faces and by all the gods of fever and of the mirrors to weave a labyrinth around the man who had imprisoned my brother (Death and the Compass)
  • Meticulously, motionlessly, secretly, he wrought in time his lofty, invisible labyrinth (The Secret Miracle)
  • Intolerably, I dreamt of an exiguous and nitid labyrinth: in the center was a water jar; my hands almost touched it, my eyes could see it, but so intricate and perplexed were the curves that I knew I would die before reaching it. (The Immortal)
  • There were nine doors in this cellar; eight led to a labyrinth that treacherously returned to the same chamber; the ninth (through another labyrinth) led to a second circular chamber equal to the first. (The Immortal)
  • You are not lighting a pyre, you are lighting a labyrinth of flames. (The Theologians)

The most labyrinthine story is The Garden of Forking Paths in which the word occurs 18 times.

The labyrinth is a metaphor for the mind and the way it never stops speculating, creating unending streams of interpretation, of our lives, of the world, of each other, of everything, each more entrancing and futile than the one before (among which are ‘the intimate delights of speculative theology’). Thus many of his ‘stories’ feature hardly any characters, events or dialogue – all the energy goes toward capturing the beguiling, phosphorescent stream-of-ideas of an extremely learned, religio-philosophical, fantastical mind:

I thought that Argos and I participated in different universes; I thought that our perceptions were the same, but that he combined them in another way and made other objects of them; I thought that perhaps there were no objects for him, only a vertiginous and continuous play of extremely brief impressions. I thought of a world without memory, without time; I considered the possibility of a language without nouns, a language of impersonal verbs or indeclinable epithets. (The Immortal)

And this endless stream of ideas reflects the way a mature world is full of infinite iterations of any given object. Looking at a coin in his hand:

I reflected that every coin in the world is a symbol of those famous coins which glitter in history and fable. I thought of Charon’s obol; of the obol for which Belisarius begged; of Judas’ thirty coins; of the drachmas of Laï’s, the famous courtesan; of the ancient coin which one of the Seven Sleepers proffered; of the shining coins of the wizard in the 1001 Nights, that turned out to be bits of paper; of the inexhaustible penny of Isaac Laquedem; of the sixty thousand pieces of silver, one for each line of an epic, which Firdusi sent back to a king because they were not of gold; of the doubloon which Ahab nailed to the mast; of Leopold Bloom’s irreversible florin; of the louis whose pictured face betrayed the fugitive Louis XVI near Varennes. (The Zahir)

And:

Money is abstract, I repeated; money is the future tense. It can be an evening in the suburbs, or music by Brahms; it can be maps, or chess, or coffee; it can be the words of Epictetus teaching us to despise gold; it is a Proteus more versatile than the one on the isle of Pharos. It is unforeseeable time, Bergsonian time, not the rigid time of Islam or the Porch.

Everything relates to everything else. Everything is a symbol of everything else, including the most profound categories of thought, hundreds, thousands of which have been dreamt up by the centuries full of metaphysicians and mystics. Anything can stand for anything else and that is, or should be, the freedom of literature, showing us how the infinite nature of human thought can liberate us, at every moment.

Tennyson once said that if we could understand a single flower, we should know what we are and what the world is. Perhaps he meant that there is no fact, however insignificant, that does not involve universal history and the infinite concatenation of cause and effect. Perhaps he meant that the visible world is implicit in every phenomenon, just as the will, according to Schopenhauer, is implicit in every subject… (The Zahir)

Or perhaps something else again, and something else again, and on forever, as long as we breathe, as long as we have consciousness, which consists of impressions, connections, moods, feelings and thoughts endlessly unfurling. Hence his interest in The Infinite, which is the subject of many of the stories (The Library of Babel) and the essay on Achilles and the tortoise which examines the infinitely recursive nature of intelligence. Speaking of the paradox, he writes:

The historical applications do not exhaust its possibilities: the vertiginous regressus in infinitum is perhaps applicable to all subjects. To aesthetics: such and such a verse moves us for such and such a reason, such and such a reason for such and such a reason…

And so on, forever.

Labyrinths as a labyrinth

I began to note how certain names and references recur in many of the stories, for example the name and works of Kafka or the paradox of Achilles and the tortoise, Schopenhauer’s notion of the world as a fantasy, Spinoza’s that all things long to persist as themselves – when it occurred to me that these references and motifs which recur across so many stories and essays themselves create a matrix or web which links the texts subterraneanly, so to speak, and themselves create a kind of labyrinth out of the text of Labyrinths. That the totality of the book Labyrinths is itself a labyrinth.

And, rereading that definition – ‘A labyrinth is a structure compounded to confuse men’ – maybe the enjoyment of this awesome book comes from savouring pleasurable confusions; maybe it is about entering a world of carefully controlled and contrived intellectual bewilderments.

The Borgesian

There’s an adjective, apparently, Borgesian, which means: ‘reminiscent of elements of Borges’ stories and essays, especially labyrinths, mirrors, reality, identity, the nature of time, and infinity’.

In his preface, André Maurois, in an attempt to convey the sense Borges’s stories give us of a vast erudition, says that Borges has read everything, but this isn’t quite true. His fictions very cannily give the impression that he has read widely, but it becomes clear fairly quickly that he has read widely in a very particular kind of text, in a certain kind of semi-mystical philosophy and metaphysics, often venturing from the fairly reputable works of Berkeley or Hume or Schopenhauer out into the arcane and mysterious byways of Christian and Islamic and Judaic theology, with the occasional excursion into the wisdom of Chinese magi.

These attributes – the combination of reputable Western philosophers with obscure religious mystics, and the casual mingling of Western texts with dicta from the Middle East or China – are exemplified in probably most famous of all Borges’s stories, Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius. Here’s a complete list of all the books and ideas referred to in just this one short essay:

Books

  • The Anglo-American Cyclopaedia (New York, 1917)
  • Ritter’s Erdkunde
  • Justus Perthes’ atlases
  • Silas Haslam: History of the Land Called Uqbar (1874)
  • Silas Haslam: A General History of Labyrinths
  • Lesbare und lesenswerthe Bemerkungen über das Land Ukkbar in Klein-Asien (1641) by Johannes Valentinus Andreä
  • Thomas De Quincey (Writings, Volume XIII)
  • Bertrand Russell: The Analysis of Mind (1921)
  • Schopenhauer: Parerga und Paralipomena (1851)
  • Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial, or a Discourse of the Sepulchral Urns lately found in Norfolk by Sir Thomas Browne (1658)

References

  • the Gnostic philosophers’ belief that the world is a pale parody of the real Creation
  • the Islamic tradition of the marvellous Night of Nights
  • David Hume’s comments on the philosophy of George Berkeley
  • Meinong’s theory of a subsistent world
  • Spinoza’s attribution to the Almighty of the attributes of time and extension
  • a heresiarch of the eleventh century
  • Zeno’s paradoxes
  • The Tao Te Ching
  • The 1001 Nights
  • hermetic philosophy

And then there are the hoaxes for which Borges acquired quite a reputation. Silas Haslam does not exist, is merely a fictional author and, scattered throughout these 40 texts, among the pedantic footnotes citing genuine works of philosophy or theology, are scattered other fictional authors, thinkers and ideas. In Borges’s hands the worlds of fiction and ‘reality’ meet and mingle on equal terms. They are, after all, situated in the realm of discourse, and can there be anything more imaginary than that?


Related links

Borges reviews

Worstward Ho by Samuel Beckett (1983)

Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

Worstward Ho is a short piece of prose published by Samuel Beckett towards the end of his life. The title is a parody of the adventure novel Westward Ho! by Victorian novelist, Charles Kingsley, which itself is a reference to the Elizabethan play Westward Ho! by Thomas Dekker and John Webster.

Regarded with a detached eye, the title is almost a parody of Beckett’s notorious miserabilism, but the title doesn’t begin to capture the apocalyptic evisceration of language which characterises the text.

Along with other late prose pieces, Company and Ill Seen Ill Said, Worstward Ho was collected in a volume with the equally parody-worthy title, Nohow On, which is actually one of the recurrent phrases in WO, in 1989.

On the first page the text includes what is probably Beckett’s most famous quote:

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

By this late stage in his career, Beckett had moved far beyond conventional categories such as novel, novella or short story. In fact he had moved beyond what most people probably think of as literature or even meaningful language.

The piece takes his late prose mannerisms to extremes. The following analysis relies on the excellent summary of the piece given by James Knowlson in his biography of Beckett, Damned To Fame, because Knowlson has read and thought about this difficult piece far more than I will ever have time to.

Shakespearean source

Beckett began writing Worstward Ho on 9 August 1981 (we know all this kind of detail because these notebooks were left, in good condition, to university archives). Beckett wrote out three quotes from King Lear to the effect that, if you can say we’ve reached the worst, you have not reached the worst. It is Edgar who says, in King Lear, Act IV, Scene 1:

And worse I may be yet. The worst is not
So long as we can say ‘This is the worst.’

The worst is unsayable, inexpressible. Therefore, the mere fact of being able to speak or write, by definition, means you’re not there yet. The piece therefore approaches the final collapse of language, repeatedly enacting it, but failing to cross the threshold into silence. Language can’t. It can only try and try again. Hence the repetitive nature of the motto: Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

Language games

In the attempt to approach the edge of expressibility, Beckett experiments with language’s potential and Knowlson gives a useful little summary of the tactics employed:

Paring away

Most obviously the English language has been pared right back to a handful of words, brought together to create small phrases or lexical units.

A place. Where none. A time when try see. Try say. How small. How vast. How if not boundless bounded. Whence the dim. Not now. Know better now. Unknow better now. Know only no out of. No knowing how know only no out of. Into only. Hence another. Another place where none.

Combinations

These tiny units, the handful of words and short phrases, are then combined, recombined, repeated with variations. The strategy of ‘enumeration’ which had been part of his prose since Watt.

On back to unsay void can go. Void cannot go. Save dim go. Then all go. All not already gone. Till dim back. Then all back. All not still gone. The one can go. The twain can go. Dim can go. Void cannot go. Save dim go. Then all go.

New coinages

Paradoxically, having reduced English to almost the bare minimum, Beckett generates a number of new words, coinages, especially around the core idea of ‘worse’.

unworsenable, unmoreable, unlessenable, evermost, meremost, dimmost, unlestening, unnullable

This much messing about with words is unusual in Beckett. And there’s lots of it, it’s a conspicuous feature of this piece:

invain, unasking, missaid, whosesoever, hindtrunk, astand, nohow, vastatween, inletting, outletting, ununsaid, unreceding, unsay, unsunk, unmoreable

As you can see, most of them are created by adding un- to perfectly normal words to create their opposite. Matter and anti-matter. Inventions in the desert of language. Tinkerings on the verge of the void.

Swapping parts of speech

In the same spirit, words change their usual syntactical function. Thus nouns are used as verbs, verbs as nouns, adverbs as adjectives and so on.

Alliteration

Playing with these last few counters of a mind on the brink of collapse throws up a surprising number of alliterative phrases, which possess a hard, chiselled beauty:

Skull and lidless stare. Where in the narrow vast? Say only vasts apart. In that narrow void vasts of void apart.

Tongue twisters

Knowlson makes the point that Beckett loved crossword puzzles, word games, tongue twisters and there turns out to be surprising capacity for such games even when playing with a handful of dead counters:

  • Somehow in. Beyondless. Thenceless there. Thitherless there. Thenceless thitherless there.
  • With leastening words say least best worse. For want of worser worse. Unlessenable least best worse.

The intrusive narrator

Beckett took the tradition of the intrusive narrator, who had been used for comic effect in 18th and 19th century novels, and turns him into an unsmiling director of the action whose presence is indicated by the imperative form of the verb ‘say’. Say this. Say that. The word ‘say’ occurs 100 times in the text. Could be paraphrased as ‘take a…’ or Let’s assume the existence of…’ only pared right back to the shortest possible verbal gesture:

Say a body. Where none. No mind. Where none.

Or this longer quotation gives a flavour of how the text creates itself through a series of orders or suggestions:

It stands. What? Yes. Say it stands. Had to up in the end and stand. Say bones. No bones but say bones. Say ground. No ground but say ground. So as to say pain. No mind and pain? Say yes that the bones may pain till no choice but stand. Somehow up and stand. Or better worse remains. Say remains of mind where none to permit of pain.

And what is it all this ‘saying’ is labouring to conjure into words, into reading, into being?

Content

Autobiographical memories

There is no ‘plot’, Good God, what an idea! But quite a few shapes or patterns emerge from this careful series of patterned paragraphs.

Beneath the dense wordplay, and forest of repetitions two images seem to emerge vaguely, as if through a fog, an old man walking hand in hand with a boy:

Bit by bit an old man and child. In the dim void bit by bit an old man and child. Any other would do as ill… Hand in hand with equal plod they go. In the free hands – no. Free empty hands. Backs turned both bowed with equal plod they go. The child hand raised to reach the holding hand. Hold the old holding hand. Hold and be held. Plod on and never recede. Slowly with never a pause plod on and never recede turned. Both bowed. Joined by held joining hands. Plod on as one. One shade. Another shade.

Having read Knowlson’s biography, both of these central images strike me as having direct autobiographical roots. Beckett’s father loved going for walks in the Dublin hills, and took his son as often as possible, hence old man and boy hand in hand. The second recurring image is of an old woman:

Somehow again on back to the bowed back alone. Nothing to show a woman’s and yet a woman’s. Oozed from softening soft the word woman’s. The words old woman’s. The words nothing to show bowed back alone a woman’s and yet a woman’s. So better worse from now that shade a woman’s. An old woman’s.

And after his father died, Knowlson describes the way, on his increasingly infrequent returns to Ireland the family home, Beckett would accompany his mother to lay flowers on his father’s grave.

Nothing and yet a woman. Old and yet old. On unseen knees. Stooped as loving memory some old gravestones stoop. In that old graveyard. Names gone and when to when. Stoop mute over the graves of none.

Physical extremity

As so often, Beckett’s places his characters in extreme physical situations – not atop burning buildings or such, but caught in tight, taut, claustrophobic poses which mimic the tight, taut nature of the psychological conception and are reflected in the tight, taut, claustrophobic prose.

  • It stands. See in the dim void how at last it stands. In the dim light source unknown. Before the downcast eyes. Clenched eyes. Staring eyes. Clenched staring eyes.
  • Head sunk on crippled hands. Clenched staring eyes.
  • Clenched eyes clamped to it alone. Alone? No. Too. To it too. The sunken skull. The crippled hands. Clenched staring eyes.

Cramped, crippled, clenched. No wonder Beckett found it physically exhausting to write texts which require the reader not only to clench his body, but in some respect to clench your mind while reading. Knowlson tells us it took Beckett seven months just to write the first draft of Worstward Ho and that, over the winter of 1981 to 1982 he told friends that writing the piece was making him physically sick. As he wrote to long-time American collaborator, Alan Schneider, in his characteristically clipped and telegraphic style:

Struggling with impossible prose. English. With loathing.

Worstward Ho took Beckett a lot of effort to write and takes us a lot of effort to read, but I think it repays the effort. I think the major mistake that most people make who struggle with Beckett is thinking there is some grand hidden meaning behind it all. I think the truth is the opposite. There is no deep and hidden meaning, no powerful allegory or network of symbols which, if you could only decipher, would suddenly unlock these difficult texts, somehow make them easier to read and process.

They are what they are. The words mean what they say. Any reader or critic is at liberty to read into them any meaning they like, but all such readings looking for hidden meanings take you away from the immediate presence of the actual words themselves and their genuinely strange, haunting, beguiling, rigorously unsentimental, anti-romantic, hard, spare impact. And their difficulty.

First the bones. On back to them. Preying since first said on foresaid remains. The ground. The pain. No bones. No ground. No pain. Why up unknown. At all costs unknown. If ever down. No choice but up if ever down. Or never down. Forever kneeling. Better forever kneeling. Better worse forever kneeling. Say from now forever kneeling. So far from now forever kneeling. So far.

If the words are ‘about’ anything, if there is a ‘plot’ (and there isn’t) it’s to do with the way the text talks to itself, manipulates itself, positions, poses then immediately questions and subverts itself.

The dim. The void. Gone too? Back too? No. Say no. Never gone. Never back. Till yes. Till say yes. Gone too. Back too. The dim. The void. Now the one. Now the other. Now both. Sudden gone. Sudden back. Unchanged? Sudden back unchanged? Yes. Say yes. Each time unchanged. Somehow unchanged. Till no. Till say no. Sudden back changed. Somehow changed. Each time somehow changed.

It is the record of the narrator shaping and unshaping and anti-shaping the words and patterns and whatever they refer to, or unrefer to, as it goes along, or doesn’t go along, says or unsays, changes or unchanges, neverending, nevermoving, until it brings itself to a sudden and abrupt end:

Enough. Sudden enough. Sudden all far. No move and sudden all far. All least. Three pins. One pinhole. In dimmost dim. Vasts apart. At bounds of boundless void. Whence no farther. Best worse no farther. Nohow less. Nohow worse. Nohow naught. Nohow on.

If you let go the reflex need to find ‘meaning’, if you recalibrate your mind to just go with the words in front of you and let them in, let them do their work, not strain for meaning and over-read them, but take them at face value, then they take you on an amazing journey to a very strange place, then they do something wierd to your mind. This is one of my favourite Beckett works because one of the purest, like The Unnamable, it is one of the least referential and therefore feels like a difficult, rebarbative, but deeply rewarding adventure in the possibilities of language and strange psychological effects.


Related link

Samuel Beckett’s works

An asterisk indicates that a work was included in the Beckett on Film project, which set out to make films of all 19 of Beckett’s stage plays using leading actors and directors. The set of 19 films was released in 2002 and most of them can be watched on YouTube.

The Second World War 1939 to 1945

*Waiting For Godot 1953 Play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

Edward the Second by Christopher Marlowe (1592)

Historical notes

England had three king Edwards in a row, over a century of Edwards – Edward I (1272 to 1307), Edward II (1307 to 1327), Edward III (1327 to 1377).

Ed the first was a hard man who devoted himself to conquering Wales and Scotland, acquiring the nicknames Edward Longshanks (he was, apparently, over 6 foot 6 in height) and ‘the Hammer of the Scots’.

Edward III came to the throne as a boy (hence the unusual length of his reign, 50 years) and for the first decade England was ruled by his mother and her lover. Once he had thrown off their tutelage, he also became a mighty king, launching what became the Hundred Years War against France, during which his son, Edward the Black Prince, won famous victories at Crecy and Poitiers.

In between came the second Edward who is traditionally seen as one of the Middle Ages’ ‘bad’ kings. Not as awful as king John, but nonetheless he ruled unwisely, alienated the population, most of his nobles, struggled against rebellion and insurrection. The most notable battle of his reign was the humiliating defeat at Bannockburn where 6,000 Scots, led by Robert Bruce, crushed an army of 15,000 English infantry supported by 2,500 heavy cavalry.

Marlowe is not interested in much of this. What fascinates Marlowe the playwright is the relationship between Edward the fey king and his notorious favourite, Piers Gaveston. As a boy Edward was presented with a foster brother, a child named Pierce (alternately Piers or Peter) Gaveston, the son of a Flemish knight who had fought with the king against the Scots. Gaveston became Edward’s nearest friend and confidant, a relationship which grew into something deeper, a profound dependency.

This may or may not have been a homosexual relationship, in the modern sense of the word (Edward had a wife, Queen Isabella, of France) but Edward became intensely dependent on his favourite’s company, and showered him with inappropriate honours, land and titles, which helped to fuel widespread anger at both men. The French royal family took the closeness of the relationship as an insult to the queen, and so forced Edward to exile Gaveston.

In fact Gaveston was sent into exile not once, but three times, once under Edward I right at the end of the old king’s reign, and twice under Ed the second, from spring 1308 to July 1309 into Ireland, and from October to December 1311. In the play, Marlowe elides the second and third exiles into one. When Gaveston returned for a third time, in 1312, his behaviour continued to infuriate his enemies so much that he was hunted down and executed by a group of magnates. King Edward may have been distraught but he still had 15 years of reign left, so Gaveston was in no way the primary cause of his downfall.

Instead Edward now shifted his reliance to the Despenser family (referred to throughout the play as ‘Spencers’), and to another young man his own age, Hugh Despenser (Spencer) the Younger. It was as he shifted his reliance to this family, rewarding numerous members with honours and land, that a really determined opposition to Edward’s rule gained strength, and it solidified when his wife returned to Paris in 1325 and refused to come back. His regime began to collapse as his advisers abandoned him and Edward was forced to flee to Wales, where he was captured and taken to Berkeley Castle, where he died on 21 September 1327, it is generally thought he was murdered, and soon a gaudy rumour went around that he had been killed by having a red-hot poker inserted into his anus and pushed up into his bowels.

Executive summary

The Elizabethan Drama website gives a good summary:

  • Part One: Act I.i – Act III.i – the Gaveston years (1307 to 1312)
  • Transitional Scene: Act III.ii – the scene ties together Gaveston’s removal in 1312 to Edward’s military challenge to Lancaster at Boroughbridge in 1322.
  • Part Two: Act III.iii – Act V.v – the final years of Edward’s reign (1322 to 1327)
  • Coda: Act V.vi, the final scene of the play; the end of the Mortimer era (1330).

The play

Act 1

Scene 1 Marlowe pitches us straight into the action, as we find Piers Gaveston onstage reading a letter from the king telling him his father (Edward I) is dead (7 July 1307), and to hasten back from exile to his bosom.

In his opening speech, Marlowe makes it crystal clear what kind of sensual sybarite Gaveston is:

I must have wanton poets, pleasant wits,
Musicians, that with touching of a string
May draw the pliant king which way I please.
Music and poetry is his delight;
Therefore I’ll have Italian masques by night,
Sweet speeches, comedies, and pleasing shows;
And in the day, when he shall walk abroad,
Like sylvan nymphs my pages shall be clad;
My men, like satyrs grazing on the lawns,
Shall with their goat-feet dance the antic hay.
Sometime a lovely boy in Dian’s shape,
With hair that gilds the water as it glides,
Crownets of pearl about his naked arms,
And in his sportful hands an olive-tree,
To hide those parts which men delight to see,
Shall bathe him in a spring; and there hard by,
One like Actæon peeping through the grove,
Shall by the angry goddess be transformed,
And running in the likeness of an hart
By yelping hounds pulled down, and seem to die

It is very gay. Gaveston says that, having just returned from exile, he is like Leander, arriving panting on the shore having swum across the Hellespont to be with his lover, and looks forward to embracing the king, and ‘dying’ on his bosom, where dying has the obvious romantic meaning, but is also the Elizabethan sense of having an orgasm. And in this long quote note how Gaveston thinks entirely in terms of men and boys, men like satyrs, his pages dressed like girls (sylvan nymphs are always female), lovely boys coyly hiding their groins with olive branches. It is a gay fantasia.

It’s quite jarring when the play leaves these visions of sensual homoerotic bliss and, with a loud crunching of gears, suddenly turns into a Shakespeare history play with the abrupt arrival of King Edward, Lancaster, the elder Mortimer,Young Mortimer, Kent, Warwick, Pembroke and Attendants. Suddenly Marlowe tries to persuade us he is the author of a historical drama and it’s not totally believable.

Thomas, second Earl of Lancaster, an immensely rich and powerful man, loathes the upstart Gaveston. He is exceeded in his hatred by Young Mortimer. Both tell Edward they promised the recently dead king to keep Gaveston in exile, so they are outraged that Edward has recalled him. Edmund, Earl of Kent, is a half-brother of King Edward, and he speaks up for Edward and reproaches the two others for daring to criticise the king. He goes so far as to suggest the king cut off Lancaster and Mortimer’s heads. Young Mortimer calls Edward ‘brain-sick’ and Lancaster says, if Gaveston is recalled, Edward should expect to have his head thrown at his feet. The angry rebellious nobles exit.

Gaveston has been hiding and overhearing and commenting in asides on the preceding dialogue. Now he steps out and lets Edward see him, who is delighted and embraces him. And promptly makes him Lord High Chamberlain, Earl of Cornwall and Lord of the Isle of Man. He offers him a personal guard, gold, and his own royal seal. Kent points that even one of these titles would be excessive for a man of Gaveston’s modest background, but this only incenses the king to shower more gifts on him.

Enter Walter Langton, bishop of Coventry. It was a quarrel with the bishop – caused when Gaveston invaded his woods to go hunting – that escalated till the old king, Edward I, sided with his bishop and exiled Gaveston. Now Gaveston gets the opportunity for revenge, the pair fall to insulting each other and Edward eggs Gaveston on to knock off the bishop’s headdress, tear his clothes and beat him up. Edward says he’ll seize all the bishop’s rents and assign them to Gaveston. Gaveston announces he’ll have the bishop consigned to the Tower of London.

It’s easy to see why all responsible subjects, at every level, would despise and hate Edward and Piers.

Scene 2 The elder and younger Mortimers, the earls of Warwick and Lancaster meet together and share how appalled they are at news of the wealth and titles Edward is lavishing on Gaveston. They are joined by the Archbishop of Canterbury, who tells them about the terrible treatment of the bishop of Coventry.

They are joined by young Queen Isabella (the historical Isabella was born in 1295 and so was 12 years old when she married Edward in 1307) who laments that Edward ignores her and gives all his attention, love and money to Gaveston. Together they decide to call a meeting of all the nobles, a parliament, and pass a law to banish Gaveston.

Scene 3 The briefest of scenes in which Gaveston tells Kent he knows about the plot. Basically it’s a fig leaf to pretend the passing of time, until…

Scene 4 The rebellious nobles assembled in Westminster. They’ve barely finished signing the document, when Edward himself arrives, seats himself on his throne with Gaveston at his right hand. All the nobles tut and complain at this inappropriate positioning. Edward orders officials to lay hands on the rebels, but the rebels issue counter-orders for Gaveston to be arrested and taken away, and it’s these orders the officials obey.

The archbishop remonstrates with Edward, but fiery young Mortimer interrupts to tell him to excommunicate the king, then they can depose him and elect a new one. The impact of all this for the reader is that both sides use extreme language – a kind of Tamburlainian excessiveness of language – right from the start.

Edward immediately capitulates, collapsing into a whining boy, handing out titles like sweeties to the assembled lords, so long as they’ll leave him part of England to frolic in with Gaveston:

So I may have some nook or corner left,
To frolic with my dearest Gaveston

Young Mortimer is genuinely puzzled why the king loves such a worthless fellow. Edward’s reply is disarmingly simple:

KING EDWARD: Because he loves me more than all the world.

Despite this avowal, Edward realises his entire nobility is against him, and so signs the document of Gaveston’s banishment, with tears. The nobles leave Edward alone on the stage to rage against their actions, and especially the tyranny of the archbishop and of the Catholic church, vowing to burn its churches to the ground, fill the Tiber with slaughtered priests and then massacre his entire nobility.

It is the totalising, hyper-violent mindset of Tamburlaine, there is no subtlety, none of the sensitivity of Shakespeare’s Richard II.

Enter Gaveston who has heard he is to be exiled. Alas yes, says the king, but his love will never fade. Edward has the idea of sending Gaveston to be governor of Ireland (which is what actually happened, in 1308). They exchange miniature portraits of each other and then can’t take leave.

Luckily the queen enters and Edward lets her have both barrels, expressing his dislike, calling her a French whore (see what I mean about the intemperateness of the language?). Edward angrily accuses her of involvement in the exile plot, and leaves with Gaveston.

Alone onstage Isabella laments that she ever got married, wishing she had drowned on the sea crossing or been poisoned at her wedding.

Lancaster, Warwick, Pembroke, the Elder Mortimer and Young Mortimer re-enter and are sorry for Isabella, who they find sitting alone and weeping. She turns to them and begs them to repeal the banishment of Gaveston; they are astonished, but she explains that begging them for Gaveston’s return is the only hope she has of winning back Edward’s heart. She takes Young Mortimer aside and whispers her reasons to him as the others talk.

Then, to their consternation, Mortimer returns and begs the nobles to overturn their decision. He argues that Gaveston may make friends and allies in Ireland, on balance, better to have him back in London where a servant can be bribed to assassinate him. And banishing then recalling Gaveston will humiliate him and make him realise his place. And his bad behaviour will mean they have the people on their side. Isabelle thinks it’s a good plan, and hopes it will make the king love her again.

Edward re-enters, dressed in mourning and deeply lamenting the departure of Gaveston, wishing he had been struck dead by some fury from hell. So when Isabelle tells him the nobles have relented and will let Gaveston return, he embraces her, weeps and kisses her. But, quite obviously, not for her sake.

In his relief and delirium Edward showers the rebel nobles with titles and positions, Warwick shall be his chief counsellor, Pembroke shall bear his sword in processions, he offers Young Mortimer admiral of the fleet, or Lord Marshall, he makes Elder Mortimer, general of his army against the Scots.

Having acted and sounded like a proper king, Edward then calls in a messenger to send the recall to Gaveston in Ireland. And tells the lords he has arranged Gaveston’s marriage to the heir of the Earl of Gloucester, then invites them all inside for a feast.

Leaving the Elder Mortimer who tells the Young Mortimer the king has reformed, and goes on to list a number of rulers and heroes from the ancient world who had young male friends or lovers. Elder Mortimer trusts that, as Edward matures, he will abandon his youthful ‘toy’. Young Mortimer details what it is about Gaveston that infuriates him – the enormously expensive clothes he wear,s worth a respectable lord’s entire revenue, that he struts around the court, that he and the king mock respectable nobles. Still – both of them believe the king has made a sincere repentance.

Act 2

Scene 1 In the household of the Earl of Gloucester, who has just died, his servants Spenser and Baldock debate which great man to attach themselves to, Spenser electing the Earl of Cornwall (Gaveston). He goes on to lecture the bookish Baldock on how he needs to dress more boldly, and be more sycophantic, if he wants to rise in the world (all this being a satire on contemporary Elizabethan fashions and behaviour).

Enter Margaret de Clare, dead Gloucester’s sister and niece of Edward II. For years, since the first Edward’s time, she has been pegged to be married to Gaveston and now she reads out a letter he has sent her, declaring her his love. She tucks it in her bosom, where she hopes her lord will rest his head, and tells Spenser he will be rewarded for his service.

Scene 2 On the coast, with a party of nobles, Edward joyfully greets Gaveston as he returns from Ireland. To pass the time he asks the nobles what emblems they’ve come up with for the tournament he plans to hold in Gaveston’s favour. The king ignores news of the French king’s manoeuvres in Normandy, and the nobles notice all he cares about is his favourite.

The emblems are slyly critical of the king and he gets angry. Isabelle tries to calm him. But all is forgot when Gaveston actually appears and Edward enthusiastically greets him, then turns to his nobles to get them to greet him as keenly. Of course, they don’t, some being sarcastic, Gaveston is immediately offended and Edward eggs him on to insult them. The argument quickly gets out of control, Lancaster draws a sword as if to stab Gaveston, the king calls his servants to defend them, Young Mortimer draws a sword and does manage to wound Gaveston.

Gaveston is taken away and the king banishes Lancaster and Young Mortimer from his court. These two say Gaveston will lose his head, the king says it’s they who will lose their heads, and so the two parties exit opposite sides of the stage, threatening to raise armies.

Come, Edmund, let’s away, and levy men;
‘Tis war that must abate these barons’ pride.

Edward storms out and the rebel nobles make a vow to fight until Gaveston is dead. Enter a messenger who says Elder Mortimer, leading an English army, has been captured and his captors demand £5,000. With what seems to me wild inconsistency, Young Mortimer says he’ll go see the king (who he’t just declared war on) to beg for the ransom.

The scene cuts to Tynemouth castle, the idea that Young Mortimer and Lancaster force their way in past the guard and confront the king. He tells them to ransom Elder Mortimer themselves. They point out he was fighting in Scotland on the king’s behalf, and go on to give Edward a reality check: his royal treasury is empty, the people are revolting against him, his garrisons have been beaten out of France, while the Scots are allying with the Irish against the English, Edward is so weak foreign princes don’t bother sending him ambassadors, his treatment of his wife has alienated the French royal family, the English nobles avoid his court, and ballads about his overthrow are sung in the streets, the inhabitants or north England – overrun by the Scots – curse his and Gaveston’s names. Not a good situation, is it?]

EARL OF LANCASTER: Look for rebellion, look to be deposed;

Young Mortimer says he’ll sell one of his estates to ransom his old uncle and he and Lancaster storm out in a fury. Now even loyal Kent, the king’s half-brother, counsels the king to get rid of Gaveston, but the king furiously rejects his advice, and so Kent, the last word of sanity, reluctantly abandons him.

Enter Queen Isabella with waiting women and Spenser and Baldock. Very unfairly, the king blames Isabella for all his troubles – until Gaveston advises the king to dissemble and be nice to her. She is pathetically grateful for even the slightest show of affection. Conversation turns to Young Mortimer and Gaveston briskly recommends the king cut off his head.

It may be worth just pausing a moment here and noting there is something hysterical about all Marlowe’s plays. Maybe it’s because of the direct contrast with Shakespeare’s history plays, but there is absolutely no subtlety: Gaveston is madly passionately sensuously in love with Edward from the start, the king ignores his nobles, within a page or two of them appearing both parties are threatening to stab, murder, assassinate and overthrow each other.

Baldock and Spencer turn up and are taken into Edward’s service on the recommendation of Gaveston.

Edward confirms that he will marry Gaveston to Margaret, his (Edward’s) niece and only heir to the deceased Earl of Gloucester.

Digression on Marlowe’s lack of subtlety

In Dido, Aeneas either completely loved Dido or completely overthrew her in order to leave for Italy, there was no halfway house. Tamburlaine is turned up to maximum mayhem throughout both his plays. Barabas in The Jew of Malta is a scheming murderous miser from the get-go. There is, in other words, precious little subtlety in Marlowe, not psychological subtlety, anyway. What there is is the thrill of the extremity, exorbitance and hyperbole of so many of the emotions, the melodrama; and there is tremendous pleasure to be had from the combination of sensuality and power in the verse, in the quality of the poetry.

Scene 3 Kent announces to Lancaster, Young Mortimer, Warwick, Pembroke and the other conspirators that he has broken with his half-brother, Edward, and is joining them. Some suspect he is a spy but Lancaster vouches for him. Whereat Young Mortimer tells the drums to sound so they can storm the castle in which are the king, Gaveston et al.

Scene 4 Inside Tynemouth castle as the rebels storm it Amid the alarms of battle, Edward tells Gaveston, Margaret and the queen to escape by ship, he will post by land with Spencer. They all exit except the queen, who is found when Lancaster and the rebels come onstage. She laments her unhappy lot, blaming everything on Gaveston. They ask where the others have gone, she explains the king split his followers into two parties hoping similarly to divide the nobles. Young Mortimer is sympathetic to the queen and invites her to go with them as they chase the king. She demurs. The rebels exit. Isabella is left alone and says she is beginning to love Mortimer, at least he is kind to her.

Scene 5 Country near Scarborough Enter Gaveston closely pursued by the lords who capture and arrest him. The leading rebels all declare they will have Gaveston hanged immediately, only refusing to stab him to death because it would dishonour them. At that moment enter the Earl of Arundel as messenger of the king, begging a last opportunity to see Gaveston. They all deny the request, urging that Gaveston be hastened to death but old Arundel gives his word that Gaveston will be returned, and then Pembroke nobly joins him. The others reluctantly agree.

The scene abruptly cuts to somewhere in southern England, the idea being that Pembroke and Arundel and their men guarding Gaveston have travelled this far to take him for his last interview with the king. In a page or so it is explained that Pembroke took the fatal decision to depart from the route for the night, to see his wife who lived nearby, and leave Gaveston in the charge of some of his soldiers.

Act 3

Scene 1 Enter Warwick and his men. They have ambushed Pembroke’s party while Pembroke was away. Now they capture Gaveston and drag him off to murder him.

Scene 2 Edward laments his Gaveston is lost. Young Spencer says, if it was him, he’d behead all the rebel nobles (this is exactly what Gaveston suggested right at the start of the play: that’s what I mean by lack of subtlety). Spenser’s father, Old Spenser, arrives with soldiers. He has come to serve his king. For his loyalty Edward creates him Earl of Wiltshire.

Enter the queen with letters from her brother the king of France, that he has seized Edward’s lands in Normandy. Edward charges his wife and young son to travel to France to negotiate with the French king. (In reality, the future Edward III was not born until 1312, after Gaveston’s murder).

Enter the Earl of Arundel with the news that Gaveston is dead. He recapitulates the story of his meeting with the rebels, his pledge to return Gaveston to them, how Warwick’s force ambushed Pembroke’s while their lord was away, abducted Gaveston, and cut his head off in a ditch. Well, Edward is not happy, although Marlowe lacks the psychology and the language to ‘do’ grief. He is much better at anger and vengeance:

Treacherous Warwick! traitorous Mortimer!
If I be England’s king, in lakes of gore
Your headless trunks, your bodies will I trail,
That you may drink your fill, and quaff in blood,
And stain my royal standard with the same,
That so my bloody colours may suggest
Remembrance of revenge immortally
On your accursèd traitorous progeny.

Moving the plot briskly along, Marlowe has Edward adopt young Spenser as Gaveston’s replacement in his affections.

Even more briskly, the nobles send a messenger who demand that Edward rid himself of his new favourite, Spenser. This is one among many moments when Marlowe doesn’t just concertina events, he crushes them to a pulp, moving through the actual sequence of historical events at light speed. Edward contemns the nobles’ request, embraces young Spenser, chases the herald off the stage and vows defiance.

End of part one / part two

I found it invaluable to read the annotated Elizabethan Drama version of the play which, at this point, has an extended note which explains that there is now a Big Jump in time. The Gaveston years are over (Gaveston was murdered in 1312) and the play now leaps over ten years to 1322. A lot has happened, but Part Two opens with the Battle of Boroughbridge in March 1322. Edward is on the rise, has raised an army of 30,000, and chased Lancaster’s rebel army up the river Severn to the village of Boroughbridge.

Scene 3 The battle is in mid-flow and Marlowe brings Edward and his established favourite, Young Spenser, on one side of the stage opposite Lancaster, Young Mortimer and the other rebels on the other, so the two groups can hurl abuse at each other. He did the same thing in the Tamburlaine plays. For the umpteenth time Edward claims the rebels will pay with their heads.

Scene 4 The king is triumphant, crows over Lancaster, Warwick and Young Mortimer, commands his men to take them away and behead Lancaster, Warwick et al, but consign Young Mortimer to the Tower. Warwick calls him a tyrant. Edward and his train exit.

Leaving Young Spenser to brief an ambassador from France to go back to France and persuade the king and nobles to drop their support for Isabella. This requires a note of explanation: In March 1325 Isabella had returned to France and refused to return, sick of being ignored by her husband, and had begun to plot his overthrow. In this scene Spenser gives the ambassador gold to bribe French nobles away from the queen.

Act 4

Scene 1 London near the Tower Enter Kent who has been banished. He is hoping for a fair wind to carry him to France. He is joined by Young Mortimer, who has escaped from the Tower of London.

Scene 2 Paris It is 1325, three years after the Battle of Boroughbridge where Edward decisively established full control over his realm. We are in Paris with Queen Isabella and their son, Edward, the future Edward III. She had been sent there to broker a peace deal with the French king. In this scene she laments that England is under the rule of the rapacious Spencer family and the king under the thumb of Young Hugh Spencer, and also laments that her plans to raise the French nobles to support her return and overthrow Spencer, have come to nothing. She is ‘friendless in France.’

Enter Sir John of Hainault who invites them to come and stay at his estate. And then she is delighted by the arrival of Kent and Young Mortimer from England. They assure her many will rise up to overthrow Edward, if someone gives them a lead. All of them are grateful for Hainault’s offer of support and hospitality.

Scene 3 In King Edward’s palace at Westminster The king rejoices with his lackeys (young Spenser is now Earl of Gloucester) at his achievement, for the first time, of complete control over his realm. He gets Spenser to read out a list of the nobles who have been executed, then they discuss the reward they’ve put out on Young Mortimer’s head.

Enter a messenger with a letter from the ambassador sent to France warning that the queen and her allies (Mortimer and Kent) plan to return and raise a rebellion. Edward defies them, and calls on the winds to blow their fleet quickly across the sea to England so he can defeat them in battle.

Scene 4 Harwich The rebels have landed (24 September 1326). Queen Isabella laments her husband’s bad kingship. She is superseded by Mortimer who makes a speech to the assembled troops explaining they have come with two specific goals: to reclaim for Isabella all the lands that have been sequestered by the Despencer family; and to remove the king’s bad advisers (the Despencer family).

Scene 5 Bristol The queen’s party gained strength as it marched on London, and Edward was forced to flee West. At the start of the scene Spenser counsels the king to take ship to Ireland, Edward demurs and says they must stand and fight, but Baldock counsels flight and they scarper.

Enter Edmund Duke of Kent, Edward’s half-brother who – if you remember – was loyal for most of the first half, before being driven to join the rebels. Now he regrets it, now he’s seen Young Mortimer snogging the queen, he fears their aim to overthrow the king altogether:

Fie on that love that hatcheth death and hate!

Bristol has surrendered without a struggle to the rebels. Kent is worried that Mortimer is watching him.

Enter Queen Isabella, Prince Edward, Young Mortimer, and Sir John of Hainault. They have triumphed. Edward has fled. His son is declared Lord Warden of the realm. Kent asks how they’re going to treat the king? Mortimer mutters to Isabella that he doesn’t like Kent’s soft attitude.

A Welsh nobleman enters with the elder Spencer. He says Young Spenser has taken ship with the king to Ireland. Mortimer orders Elder Spenser to be taken away and executed.

Scene 6 Neath Abbey (Historical note: by mid-November, Edward and his few remaining followers – including Arundel, Baldock and Younger Spenser – were in hiding at the abbey of Neath in south Wales.) The abbot welcomes the small party to the abbey. Edward appreciates the peace and quiet.

They’ve barely been assured they are quite safe here, before enter Welsh nobleman Rice ap Howell and Leicester to arrest them for high treason. Spenser and Baldock are taken away – the general idea, to be beheaded – the king is to be escorted to Kenilworth Castle. When Leicester says they have a litter ready to convey him, Edward lets fly with some Marlovian hyperbole:

A litter hast thou? lay me in a hearse,
And to the gates of hell convey me hence.
Let Pluto’s bells ring out my fatal knell,
And hags howl for my death at Charon’s shore;

Note the characteristically Marlovian use of Greek classical myth. Leicester takes away the king. Baldock and Spenser lament their fate. Arundel and Spencer were hanged, castrated and eviscerated.

Act 5

Scene 1 (Historical note: It is now 20 January 1327. Edward is being kept at Kenilworth castle. He has surrendered the Great Seal to Mortimer and Isabella) Leicester is treating Edward kindly, but Edward has a long speech lamenting his situation. Parliament has sent a delegation (the bishop of Winchester and Trussel) asking him to abdicate. Edward takes off his crown but is loath to hand it over and delivers a lengthy soliloquy whose beauty and unexpected sensitivity anticipates Shakespeare.

But what are kings, when regiment is gone,
But perfect shadows in a sunshine day?

The nobles demand he resign the crown to his son, young Edward, for the time being the ward of the queen and Mortimer, but Edward, for page after page, agonises, accuses them, prevaricates – it is genuinely moving in a way rare for Marlowe. He tells them to take his handkerchief, wet with tears, to the queen.

Sir Thomas, Lord of Berkeley Castle, arrives with a commission to take possession of the king (he is being passed from one gaoler to another). Giving up the crown has plunged him into despair. They explain where they’re taking him, he doesn’t care:

EDWARD: Whither you will; all places are alike,
And every earth is fit for burial.

Scene 2 The royal palace Now run by Queen Isabella and her lover, Young Mortimer. Mortimer presses the urgency of having young prince Edward crowned, so as to cement his authority and Mortimer’s power. The queen assents to whatever her lover suggests.

Enter the bishop of Winchester with the crown, with rumour that Kent is planning to free his half brother the king, and that Edward is being moved from Kenilworth to Berkeley Castle.

To end their anxiety Mortimer explicitly asks the queen if she wants Edward dead, and she reluctantly, weakly agrees. Mortimer calls in two junior nobles, Baron John Maltravers and Sir Thomas Gurney, draws up and signs an order handing the king over to their care. Mortimer explicitly orders them to mistreat the king, humiliate and abuse him, move him from place to place, to Kenilworth then back to Berkeley so no-one knows where he is.

Enter Kent and the young prince Edward. The prince is understandably concerned about his father, Kent has several asides in which he laments his support for Mortimer and condemns Isabella for her hypocrisy. This breaks out into an open squabble as Mortimer physically grabs the prince to separate him from Kent, Kent asserts that as Edward’s nearest blood relative he should be protector to the prince. Both parties exit different sides of the stage.

Scene 3 King Edward is now in the care of Matrevis and Gurney, who systematically mistreat him, as ordered by Mortimer, giving him puddle water to drink, roughly force-shaving him.

Enter Kent who wants to speak with the king, but he is seized by soldiers. The king is roughly bundled into the nearby castle, while Kent is ordered to be taken before Mortimer, the real power in the land.

Scene 4 Mortimer knows the king must die but that, whoever does the deed will suffer once his son is mature. Therefore he contrives an ambiguous letter, which can be read both as ordering Edward’s death, but warning against it. He gives it to a messenger, Lightborn, to take to Matravers. He questions him about his qualifications and Lightborn assures him he knows numerous ways of murdering and killing. The precise method he’ll use on Edward, he keeps secret. What Mortimer is keeping secret from Lightborn is that along with the message, he is being given a token to show the captors which will instruct them that Lightborn himself be murdered once he’s killed Edward. Lightborn exits.

Mortimer soliloquises, reflecting on how he now has complete and ultimate power.

Now is all sure: the queen and Mortimer
Shall rule the realm, the king; and none rule us.

The setting changes (in that easy immediate way which was possible on the bare Elizabethan stage) to Westminster. Enter King Edward the Third, Queen Isabella, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Champion and Nobles, and we witness the coronation of young prince Edward to become King Edward III. This actually took place on 1 February 1327.

The first thing that happens before the new king is his half-uncle Kent is dragged in by soldiers who tell Mortimer Kent had attempted to free the king from imprisonment. Incensed, Mortimer immediately orders him to be beheaded, but the new king intercedes for his uncle but discovers there is nothing he can do, and Kent is dragged off to be executed. Edward fears that he himself will be next and complains to his mother, who promises to protect him.

Scene 5 A hall in Berkeley castle Matravers reveals that Edward is being kept in a dungeon filled with water up to his knees, yet he survives. They are planning to call in Edward and abuse and humiliate him some more when Lightborn arrives, shows them the ambiguous letter (from which they realise Edward is to be murdered) and the token (which signals that Lightborn himself must be murdered thereafter).

Lightborn gives instructions to what he needs – a red-hot spit and a feather bed – takes a torch and goes down into the dungeon where Edward is kept. He is repelled by the darkness and the stink. Edward knows he’s come to murder him, He describes his conditions, forced to stand for ten days in water soiled by the castle’s sewage, someone playing a drum continually so that he cannot sleep. It’s worth noting, in passing, that the Middle Ages, and the Elizabethan era describing them, were both well aware of the power of psychological as well as physical torture.

Edward accuses Lightborn of going to murder him. Lightborn says he will not have his blood on his hands and Edward is slightly appeased. We know Lightborn will not literally have blood on his hands as he does not intend to stab Edward, but to insert the red-hot poker in his anus. It is a very black piece of humour on Marlowe’s part.

Somehow a bed appears in the scene. Some editors suggest Lightborn has brought Edward onstage i.e. up out of the ‘dungeon,’ where a bed has been brought by Matravers. Now Lightborn gently coaxes Edward to lie down on it. Edward’s spurts of misgiving and fear are surprisingly moving, for Marlowe. He closes his eyes, begins to drift off, then suddenly starts awake and says he fears if he sleeps he will never wake.

At which Lightborn confirms it’s true, shouts for Matravers and Gurney to come running in with a table which they turn upside down and lay on Edward’s body and press so hard they suffocate him. No red-hot poker? No. It was by Marlowe’s time part of the legend of the king’s murder and is in his primary source, but Marlowe chose to leave it out. Possibly because of the censorship, murdering a king was historical fact, but such a crude torture of the lord’s anointed might have got the play in trouble with the authorities.

No sooner is Edward dead and the other three stand back from their labours, than Matravers stabs Lightborn to death. Grim and brutal. Mind you, if you think about how Shakespeare handles the death of kings or emperors, it always involves extended metaphors of Nature turned upside, down, earthquakes, graves yawning open, night-owls shrieking and so on. All that kind of supernatural paraphernalia is utterly absent from this account.

Scene 6 The royal palace Matravers reports to Mortimer that the king is dead, Lightborn murdered but Gurney has fled and might well leak their secret. Enraged, Mortimer tells him to get out before he stabs him.

Seconds later Queen Isabella enters to tell Mortimer that young Edward III has heard his father is murdered, tears his hair with grief, and has roused the council chamber against Mortimer. a) Edward has heard almost before Mortimer himself – or, more precisely, as soon as the audience has been informed of an action, it is one of the conventions of these dramas that all the other characters learn the same information at the same time. Young Edward has not only learned about his father’s murder, but raised the council about it, in approximately the same space of time it took Isabella to tell Mortimer about it, maybe 60 seconds.

These plays take place in magic time, in a sort of imaginative time which is closer to our unconscious sense of the connection between events and people, than to our everyday, rational understanding of time. In actual history, three years passed between the murder of Edward II and the revolt of young Edward III against his ‘Protector’, Mortimer, and the Queen. In this play not even three minutes pass.

Enter King Edward the Third, Lords and Attendants. Edward has grown in stature and now takes upon himself the authority of king, says his murdered father speaks through him and accuses Mortimer of murder. Mortimer says where’s the evidence but Edward produces the letter Mortimer gave Lightborn (it appears the Gurney must have handed it over).

Edward orders Mortimer to be taken away in an executioner’s cart, to be hanged, drawn and quartered. This sounds brutal – it is brutal – the intention was to demonstrate the utter control over every subject’s body of the all-powerful monarch.

Mortimer delivers a dignified soliloquy about facing death, then is taken away by officers. Edward is uncertain how to treat Isabella who pleads with him as her own flesh and blood that she had no part in the murder. Edward orders her to the Tower of London pending more police work and maybe a trial. Isabella weeps a few more phrases of regret, and is taken away.

Officers enter with the head of Mortimer. See, it’s Magic Time, by which I mean that orders are no sooner given than they are carried out, as the unconscious mind wishes all its desires to be enacted, immediately. It is more like dreamtime than the Real World. This may be a so-called history play but it is, in this respect, as much an inhabitant of fairy land as a Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Mortimer’s head is given to Edward who speaks to it, cursing that he was too young to prevent his father’s murder.

Attendants enter with the hearse of King Edward II (who had, in Real Time, been dead and buried for three years), so that Edward can put on his funeral robes, make his last speech – offering his dead father the traitor’s head, weep for his father, then everyone processes offstage to presumably funeral music, maybe the slow beating of a drum.

Thoughts

The history of the events described in this play are long and complex and it is impressive the way that Marlowe manages to contract and compress them into a dramatic whole.

Like Shakespeare he gets characters’ ages wildly wrong (young prince Edward appears towards the end of Part one when he hadn’t in fact been born yet), puts characters on the wrong sides of the conflict, conflates two characters into one or just invents them as he needs them. He has bent and twisted the events related in his sources, mainly Holinshed’s Chronicles, entirely to suit his own needs.

But more than that, what comes over is the immense freedom of the Elizabethan stage as a medium: a few props could be moved around on an empty stage and, bingo, we have moved from a room in the king’s palace to open country in Yorkshire, a handful of people wearing robes march onstage and we are at the king’s coronation, they all exit and a curtain at the back of the stage is drawn apart to reveal the king in his dungeon.

This makes Elizabethan plays difficult to stage, but amazing to read, because of their blithe indifference to the limits of reality or factuality. Almost in mid-sentence characters transition from one setting to another, can walk from a castle in Wales into a palace in London. Quite quickly you get used to the range of settings the playwrights deploy, and the extraordinary freedom with which they deploy them, the speed with which they get to the point, the kernel of a scene, with characters over-reacting, storming and raging, falling helplessly in love – whatever it is, the playwrights get straight to the heart of a scene and then milk it for all it’s worth.

It is a fast-moving parade of colourful scenes which, repeatedly remind me more of pantomime, with its garish baddies and soppy love affairs, and comedy turns, than 21st century media like TV plays or serious film.


Related links

Marlowe’s works

Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe (1592)

JOHN FAUSTUS: All things that move between the quiet poles
Shall be at my command: emperors and kings
Are but obeyèd in their several provinces;
But his dominion that exceeds in this
Stretcheth as far as doth the mind of man;

Title and provenance

The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus.

Date Written: c. 1589-1592.

Source: In 1587 a version of the story of Doctor John Faustus was published in Frankfurt-on-Main, in German. Soon after – a 1592 edition is the earliest one extant – an anonymous English translation, containing modifications and additions, was published in England, under the title The Historie of the damnable life of Doctor John Faustus. It is clear from the numerous similarities in plot, episodes and even language that the History was Marlowe’s primary source for his play.

Doctor Faustus exists in two versions: the 1604 (‘A’ text) quarto is shorter; a second, longer version was published in 1616 (the ‘B’ text). Which one is more ‘authentic’ has been exercising Marlowe scholars for four hundred years. The editor of the New Mermaid edition – Roma Gill – thinks the shorter A version likely to be purer Marlowe, and the later B version includes additions by other writers. This is a review of the 1616 ‘B’, long version, as found on the ElizabethanDrama.org website.

Executive Summary

The famous theologian Doctor John Faustus is spiritually unfulfilled with his chosen vocation, teaching and debating at the university in Wittenberg. He reviews all existing forms of human learning, dismissing them one by one as trash, fit only for small minds. He decides occult knowledge and magic is the only thing for him and the climax of part one is when he conjures a devil, an agent of Satan, Mephistopheles, and signs a contract with him, which gives Faustus the gift of sorcery and the secrets of the universe for 24 years, in exchange for his eternal soul.

Then there’s the middle bit where Faustus takes advantage of his magical powers, flying into space in a chariot drawn by dragons, an extended farce scene poking fun at the pope, before the most famous scene where he conjures up the most beautiful woman in all human history, Helen of Troy, with the words: ‘Is this the face that launched a thousand ships…’ Different printed editions of the play give different scenes demonstrating how Faustus uses his powers.

In the final part of this moralising fairy tale Mephistopheles returns and demands Faustus’s soul and, after a lot of pleading, Faustus is dragged down to hell. So let that be a lesson to you, children: Do NOT sign away your soul to the devil, no matter how tempting the short-term offer. ‘What must you not do, Johnny?’ ‘I must no sign my soul away to the devil, miss.’ ‘Good boy, Johnny.’

The play

Prologue

Consciously rejects the grand locations and warlike deeds of his earlier plays (Dido, Tamburlaine and the Jew of Malta) for something more intimate. The prologue introduces Dr John Faustus with a potted biography of his birth, upbringing and education at Wittenberg, where he soon excels in theology.

Till swoln with cunning of a self-conceit,
His waxen wings did mount above his reach,
And, melting, heavens conspired his overthrow;
For, falling to a devilish exercise
And glutted now with learning’s golden gifts,
He surfeits upon cursèd necromancy;
Nothing so sweet as magic is to him,
Which he prefers before his chiefest bliss:
And this the man that in his study sits.

This is very slick and professional, to take us from nothing to having a good grasp of Faustus’s character and biography in just 27 lines before the prologue indicates the scene with his hand, and the play opens. Very impressive.

Act 1

Dr Johann Faustus is sitting in his study reviewing books of learning, the law, medicine, politics, and dismisses them all as superficial trash:

Philosophy is odious and obscure;
Both law and physic are for petty wits;
‘Tis magic, magic, that hath ravished me

Here, right at the start of the play a Good Angel and a Bad Angel appear to Faustus, respectively encouraging him, and telling him not to, study magic. Faustus summons two fellow students of the dark arts who have, apparently, helped him, Valdes and Cornelius. To all these characters, Marlowe allots his trademark booming verse, packed with soaring ambition, studded with stunning images of luxury and power, imagining what it will be like when they have total magical control:

VALDES: As Indian Moors obey their Spanish lords,
So shall the spirits of every element
Be always serviceable to us three;
Like lions shall they guard us when we please;
Like Almain rutters with their horsemen’s staves,
Or Lapland giants, trotting by our sides;
Sometimes like women, or unwedded maids,
Shadowing more beauty in their airy brows
Than has the white breasts of the queen of love:
From Venice shall they drag huge argosies,
And from America the golden fleece
That yearly stuffs old Philip’s treasury;

Faustus gets excited at the images of power and luxury his friends conjure up, and he invites them for dinner and to plan how to practice magic.

Scene 2 Street outside Faustus’s house Two scholars enter and ask Faustus’s servant, Wagner, where his master is. The scene is padded out with comic material, namely that Wagner has picked up scraps of rhetoric and logic and so teases the two scholars by proving their arguments illogical or wrongly formed etc. Eventually he spits out that his master is at dinner with Valdes and Cornelius and the two scholars go away, sad, and tutting and shaking their heads, because that pair have a bad reputation for the dark arts.

Scene 3 A grove This is the scene where Faustus, alone in a grove in the countryside, has drawn a circle and written into it various magical symbols and now recites a Latin spell, there is a crack of thunder, and a devil appears, Mephistopheles. Although he should be terrifying, he proceeds to explain the processes and procedures of devils in relatively bureaucratic terms: when they hear anyone abjure Christ, God and the Scriptures a devil will come speeding, hoping to win a soul.

Faustus’s superficiality, the lack of understanding behind all his fine reading, is amply demonstrated. He says he agrees with the ancient philosophers in thinking hell a children’s fable, of confounding heaven and hell. When Mephistopheles tries to explain that hell isn’t a world of punishments, it is deprivation of the boundless soul-filling job of being in heaven, Faustus mocks him and tells him to ‘learn of Faustus manly fortitude’. In other words, it is plain for everyone in the audience to see that Faustus is not only a blasphemer and infidel, he us stupid when it comes to the only thing in life which matters.

It is Faustus who boastfully makes the offer, telling Mephistopheles to go and tell his master, mighty Lucifer:

FAUSTUS: Say he surrenders up to him his soul,
So he will spare him four and twenty years,
Letting him live in all voluptuousness,
Having thee ever to attend on me,
To give me whatsoever I shall ask,
To tell me whatsoever I demand,
To slay mine enemies, and to aid my friends,
And always be obedient to my will.

You can see how this kind of megalomaniac over-reaching is first cousin to Tamburlaine’s heaven-vaulting ambition, and Faustus’s ambitions are cast in very similar terms:

By him I’ll be great emperor of the world,
And make a bridge thorough the moving air,
To pass the ocean with a band of men;
I’ll join the hills that bind the Afric shore,
And make that country continent to Spain,
And both contributary to my crown.
The Emperor shall not live but by my leave,
Nor any potentate of Germany.
Now that I have obtained what I desired.

Scene 4 A comic scene with Wagner the servant (who speaks in servant prose) who encounter a ‘clown’ or beggar in the street and raises two devils to terrify the clown into serving him (Wagner).

Wagner can raise devils? This scene, in fact all the scenes with Wagner and some of the banter between Faustus and Mephistopheles has a raggedy comedy about it. T.S. Eliot described The Jew of Malta as ‘a savage farce’ and Faustus also has farcical elements, as if Marlowe can’t take his own story seriously.

Scene 5 Faustus’s study He listens to the arguments of the good and bad angel, but is resolved for bad, He realises:

The god thou serv’st is thine own appetite,

And yet he is determined to do it. He argues back against the good angel, and then – it being midnight – conjures Mephistopheles. The devil tells him to stab his arm to draw the blood to sign his pact with great Lucifer.

But something genuinely spooky happens. As Faustus tries to write, his blood keeps congealing, preventing him from continuing to sign away his soul. Mephistopheles hurries offstage and returns with a chafer of flame which they use to prevent Faustus’s blood congealing, and he finishes writing out the contract. But then appears on his arm the words Homo fuge, Latin for ‘man, flee!’ Faustus is momentarily panic-stricken, but Mephistopheles magics up a dancing troupe of devils to distract him. Thus reassured (or dazzled) Faustus reads out the contract he has drawn up: Mephistopheles will be his to command for 24 years to carry out his every wish, and then:

I, John Faustus of Wittenberg, Doctor, by these presents, do give both body and soul to Lucifer, Prince of the East, and his minister Mephistophilis; and furthermore grant unto them, that, four-and-twenty years being expired, and these articles above written being inviolate, full power to fetch or carry the said John Faustus, body and soul, flesh and blood, into their habitation wheresoever.

Mephistopheles again double checks that Faustus is entering into the contract of his own free will. This is important for the very legal pernicketiness which characterises Christian theology. Faustus affirms it. Now commences his 24 years of fun.

Faustus asks Mephisopheles about hell and the latter gives a famous and profound description:

Hell hath no limits, nor is circumscribed
In one self place, for where we are is hell,
And where hell is, there must we ever be.

Hell is the absence of God and of God’s grace which is what saves and redeems humans. It is not so much a place, as a condition we carry round with us. Hence Mephistopheles’ earlier declaration:

Why, this is hell, nor am I out of it:
Think’st thou that I, that saw the face of God
And tasted the eternal joys of Heaven
Am not tormented with ten thousand hells,
In being deprived of everlasting bliss?

Once again Faustus shows his idiocy by saying he doesn’t believe hell exists, it’s an old wives’ tale. Nonetheless, Mephistopheles says he’ll bring him the most beautiful women in the world, each morning, fresh to his bed. And Mephistopheles gives him a book full of magic spells.

Scene 6 Some time later, in Faustus’s house, he accuses Mephistopheles of misleading him, of looking up at the stars and the beautiful heaven he will never see. Mephistopheles tries to talk him round, the two angels appear and the bad won triumphs, hardening Faustus’s heart. Incidentally, there’s an indication of what the pair have been up to:

Have not I made blind Homer sing to me
Of Alexander’s love and Oenon’s death?
And hath not he, that built the walls of Thebes
With ravishing sound of his melodious harp,
Made music with my Mephistophilis?

He quizzes him about the nature of the solar system, the planets and the stars, which knowledge Mephistopheles rattles off but when Faustus asks him who made it all the devil literally cannot bring himself to utter the word God.

When the good angel prompts Faustus to try to repent he is visited by Lucifer and Beelzebub. They tell him not to think on heaven or call on God. To distract him they summon up an allegorical masque of the seven deadly sins. Faustus loves the show and Lucifer gives him a parting gift of a book of magic before exiting.

Scene 7 A comic scene between Robin and Dick, two ostlers or staff at an inn who have got their hands on one of Faustus’s books and appear to be thinking of using it to gain magical powers.

Chorus 1 The chorus describes how Faustus rode a chariot pulled by dragons out into the solar system to behold the planets in their motion. Returned to earth after 8 days, he is now riding a dragon across its surface and will soon arrive at Rome.

Scene 8 Faustus and Mephistopheles review the tour they’ve made through France, Germany and down into Italy. Faustus is loving it:

Whilst I am here on earth, let me be cloyed
With all things that delight the heart of man:
My four-and-twenty years of liberty
I’ll spend in pleasure and in dalliance…

Now they hide in order to watch the annual Festival of St Peter inside the palace of the Pope. A procession enters, the striking part of which is that a ruler named Bruno is in chains, and the Pope orders him to go on all fours so as to act as a footstool for him (the Pope) to ascend his throne.

This Bruno is a fictitious ‘anti-pope’, a role which arose in the 14th century when two different popes were elected for a period of fifty years, who opposed and anathematised each other. But there was never an anti-pope named Bruno, just as the pope in these scenes is referred to as Adrian and depicted as an enemy of the Holy Roman Emperor, whereas the one and only pope named Adrian (the only Englishman to have been pope) ruled from 1154 to 1159 and was an ally of the Holy Roman Emperor. Similarly, the scene features a King Sigismund of Hungary and there has never been a King Sigismund of Hungary. In other words, these names are just handy labels for a scene of broad farce. Similarly, the scene

Faustus and Mephistopheles watch all this then disguise themselves as cardinals of France and Padua in order to give the pope their theological opinion that the antipope Bruno should immediately be burned at the stake and the Emperor excommunicated. The pope hands Bruno over to our disguised pair to carry out the sentence.

Scene 9 The pope’s privy chamber The pope is holding a feast for king Sigismund and his cardinals. Faustus reveals that he and Mephistopheles have magically transported Bruno safely back to Germany. The two real cardinals of France and Padua enter and are perplexed when the pope asks how their imprisoning and punishment of Bruno is going; both deny any knowledge although, of course, the pope’s entire court swears they saw it happen. So the cardinals are dragged off to prison and punishment.

Faustus gets Mephistopheles to say a spell (interesting to compare these spells with the same sort of thing Shakespeare used in A Midsummer Night’s Dream) to make him invisible and proceeds to wreak havoc, whispering insults in the pope’s ear, as if from his neighbour, whisking away the pope’s plates and goblet of wine, etc, eventually slapping the pope. Concluding some evil spirit is loose among them, the pope calls in some friars who solemnly chant magic spells, er, prayers, until Faustus and Mephistopheles set about them, too, beating them and throwing fireworks at them as they run away.

Pantomime.

Scene 10 Street near an inn Back to the serving men Robin and Dick. The vintner accuses them of stealing a cup from the inn. Rather over-reacting, Robin uses Faustus’s book to read and spell and conjure up Mephistopheles. As punishment for dragging him away from more important work, Mephistopheles transforms them into a dog and an ape, who promptly bark and bounce around the stage. Panto.

Scene 11 Court of the Holy Roman Emperor at Innsbruck Two servants, Frederick and Martino, explain that Faustus has arrived at the Emperor’s court, having magically transported Bruno to Germany, and has promised to show the emperor all his historical antecedents.

Scene 12 The emperors ‘presence chamber’ The emperor formally greets Faustus and thanks him for rescuing Bruno, the German anti-pope. Faustus then presents a dumb show in which we all see the figure of Alexander the Great confront and defeat the Persian emperor Darius before setting the latter’s crown on the head of his paramour. The emperor is mightily impressed, though he has to be restrained by Faustus from embracing the dumbshow Alexander.

One of the emperor’s courtiers is a drunken nitwit named Benvolio, and as a result of saying he doesn’t believe in Faustus’s powers, the latter gives him the horns of a stag. Everyone laughs then Faustus menaces him with setting a pack of devils to tear him to pieces as Diana’s hounds tore Actaeon to pieces. The emperor intercedes and so Faustus relents and removes Benvolio’s horns. This is comedy, farce – but what strikes me is the use of classical myth to articulate it. The Greek myths and legends dominate Marlowe’s imagination from start to finish.

Scene 13 A grove near Innsbruck In revenge for his humiliation, Benvolio organises an ambush with Frederick and Martino and, when Faustus comes along, they stab him, knock him to the ground and then chop off his head! They exult over his corpse but are terrified when the headless body gets to its feet. He cannot be killed. Now he conjures up Mephistopheles and two other devils to drag the three conspirators off to dump them in mud and drag them through thornbushes and throw them off steep rocks to break their bones, and they all exit, screaming.

That’s not all. Some soldiers had been included in the assassination attempt and when they now come forward to attack Faustus, the latter conjures up Mephistopheles and other devils in the guise of an army with drums and fife who march against the soldiers and chase them offstage with fireworks.

Scene 14 Show what became of the three conspirators Benvolio, Frederick and Marino, now covered in mud, scratched and bruised and,.. with stags horns on their heads! They conclude there is nothing they can do against such magic and will retreat to Benvolio’s castle, there to live in retirement till their shame has passed.

Scene 15 A convoluted comic scene in which a horse-courser or dealer begs Faustus to sell him his magic horse, which he finally does for 40 dollars but tells the man not to ride it into water. Barely 30 seconds have passed and Faustus has just gone to bed, before the dealer returns to say he did ride the horse into water and it disappeared leaving just a straw behind. Now the dealer goes to pull Faustus out of bed but his leg comes off in his hand, Faustus wakes up shouting Murder, murder’, and the dealer runs off. Faustus’s leg is magically restored (just as his head was in scene 13) and  his servant tells him the Duke of Vanholt wishes to see him.

Scene 16 Robin, Dick, the horse-courser, and a carter are down the pub sharing their reasons for hating Faustus.

Scene 17 The Court of the Duke of Vanholt The Duke thanks Faustus for building him a castle in the air. His wife, the duchess, is pregnant and expresses a fancy for grapes. Although it is midwinter, Faustus dispatches Mephistopheles who returns a few seconds later with a spray of wonderful fresh grapes.

The Duke and Duchess are still marvelling at this when there is a load of rowdy banging at the gate. It is Robin, Dick, the carter, and the horse-courser. They’re drunk, insult Faustus and demand more beer! Faustus asks the duke to indulge him and calls for more beer. This scene takes up an inordinate space, in which the horse dealer drunkenly asks whether Faustus can remember having his leg pulled off, Faustus says yes, the dealer asks where it is, Faustus replies, back here with me, and so on. Presumably the Elizabethan audience found all this very funny.

All four begin to accuse Faustus with their grievances but one by one he strikes them dumb, last of all the hostess who’s come to ask for her bill to be paid, and they exit like zombies. The duke and duchess are very amused.

Scene 18 Back at Faustus’s, Wagner enters to tell us his master is preparing to die, has given Wagner:

his wealth,
His house, his goods, and store of golden plate,
Besides two thousand ducats ready-coined.

Then we see Faustus at dinner with two scholars. They have been discussing who was the most beautiful woman in the world (as wise and learned scholars will, after a few beers) and decided it must be Helen of Troy. Faustus promptly gets Mephistopheles to lead her in, in a dumbshow of the same style as the one where Faustus conjured up Alexander the Great. They are immensely impressed and gratified, thank Faustus and leave.

The tone completely changes as an old man enters and warns Faustus, at length, to save his soul. Faustus is stricken with remorse and tries to repent but Mephistopheles turns savage, accuses him of breaking the bargain, and warns him he will tear his flesh in piecemeal.

Faustus is so terrified he instantly promises to renew his vow, and Mephistopheles hands him a dagger so he can cut his arm and renew the contract in his own blood and then, vengefully, orders Mephistopheles to torment the good old man who just visited him. Faustus asks for just one thing – that he may possess Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world they saw a few minutes ago, to distract him from his vow.

Re-enter Helen, passing over the stage between two Cupids which prompts the famous lines:

FAUSTUS: Was this the face that launched a thousand ships,
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium? −
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss.
[He kisses her]
Her lips suck forth my soul: see, where it flies! −
Come, Helen, come, give me my soul again.

What strikes me now about this speech is, again, the way it is drenched in references to Greek myth, and references Troy, Paris, Achilles, Jupiter, Semele and Arethusa.

Scene 19 in which Faustus pays his debt and is dragged down to hell With a crack of thunder Lucifer, Beelzebub, and Mephistophilis enter Faustus’s study. Separately, Faustus finalises his will with Wagner, gifting him all his belongings. Then the scholars visit and Faustus laments and regrets his life of sin, his promise and the threat of eternal damnation.

A scholar tells him to turn to God but the devils hold his tongue, dry his tears, pull down his hands so he cannot pray. Then he for the first time tells them the full story, of how he sold his soul to the devil for 24 years of partying, Horrified, the three scholars retire into the next room.

Now Mephistopheles closes in on him, admitting it was he who drew his taste to books of magic, closed up the books of divinity and steered Faustus’s soul to damnation. The good angel and bad angel appear, the good one showing him the throne in heaven Faustus would have been awarded, the bad one explaining now he will be dragged down to hell and hell appears to be a pretty bad place. Mephistopheles shows it to him:

EVIL ANGEL: Now, Faustus, let thine eyes with horror stare
Into that vast perpetual torture-house.
There are the furies tossing damnèd souls
On burning forks; their bodies boil in lead;
There are live quarters broiling on the coals,
That ne’er can die; this ever-burning chair
Is for o’er-tortured souls to rest them in;
These that are fed with sops of flaming fire,
Were gluttons, and loved only delicates,
And laughed to see the poor starve at their gates:
But yet all these are nothing; thou shalt see
Ten thousand tortures that more horrid be.

It is noticeable how traditional this image is, and how different from the much more subtle, psychological definition of hell (as the absence of God which all damned people carry around within themselves wherever they go) which Mephistopheles expressed at the start of the play. Too subtle for the climax of a tragedy, which requires blood and guts and screaming, or as much garish suffering as possible. And hence the reversion to a traditional fire and pitchforks interpretation here at the play’s climax.

The clock chimes eleven. He has an hour left and delivers a blisteringly intense speech of terrified desperation:

The stars move still, time runs, the clock will strike,
The devil will come, and Faustus must be damned.
O, I’ll leap up to my God! − Who pulls me down? −
See, see, where Christ’s blood streams in the firmament!
One drop would save my soul, half a drop: ah, my Christ! −

The clock ticks relentlessly forward and then strikes midnight. There isn’t, as you might have expected, a big set-piece scene featuring Lucifer, Beelzebub et all gloatingly seizing him. Instead Faustus’s final moments are brief and brutal as a pack of devils enter and drag Faustus offstage as he screams his final lines:

O mercy, Heaven! look not so fierce on me!
Adders and serpents, let me breathe a while!
Ugly hell, gape not! Come not, Lucifer!
I’ll burn my books! − O Mephistophilis!

Even reading this I found genuinely harrowing. Well acted onstage it can be terrifying.

Scene 20 There is a short, half-page-long scene as the three scholars cowering next door, go into Faustus’s study and discover his body all torn to pieces, and recount the terrible screams they heard. Well, they’ll gather up his body and give him a fine funeral at which all the students of the university will wear black.

Chorus 2 Brief and to the point:

Cut is the branch that might have grown full straight,
And burnèd is Apollo’s laurel bough,
That sometime grew within this learnèd man.
Faustus is gone: regard his hellish fall,
Whose fiendful fortune may exhort the wise,
Only to wonder at unlawful things,
Whose deepness doth entice such forward wits
To practise more than heavenly power permits.

Thoughts

A divided text Clearly there are two completely different types or tones of content sitting cheek-by-jowl in this strange uneven text: the genuinely tragical and sometimes very moving, and the farcical, panto content. Most scholars and indeed readers and audiences can easily see that the comic scenes were almost certainly not written by Marlowe. Marlowe’s humour, as demonstrated in The Jew of Malta, is stylish, cynical and savage. Much of the humour in Faustus’s comic scenes (pulling Faustus’s leg off, cutting his head off, four churls getting drunk down the pub) is just stupid.

Endless theology There’s enough theological issues or problems in the play – the precise status of the good and bad angel, the extent of Faustus’s free will, whether God’s grace could save him up to the last minute – to keep serious-minded scholars in academic papers for the rest of time. After all, Marlowe was himself a scholarship-winning student of divinity at Cambridge and Roma Gill’s introduction informs us that Mephistopheles’ subtle vision of hell as exclusion from the bliss of salvation is in fact closely translated from a text by the 4th century Church Father, Saint John Chrysostom.

Dazzling escapades For us ordinary folk, though, it’s useful to make a list of Faustus’s various escapades: that he rides through the solar system in a chariot pulled by dragons (!), rides across Europe on the back of a dragon, gets to slap the pope and chase friars with fireworks, and that Mephistopheles changes two servants into an ape and a dog. He creates a masque featuring Alexander the Great and builds a castle in the air and, by implication, has Homer sing to him, and has sex with Helen of Troy. On the farcical end of the scale, he sells a horse dealer a horse which is in fact a straw, gives a drunken knight real stags’ horns, survives having his head cut off and his leg pulled off, and strikes four noisy chavs dumb.

Clever critics have pointed out that Faustus’s escapades mark stages on his degeneration: he starts out hymning the infinite power of the mind, associating with Homer and travelling the solar system, before degenerating into a court entertainer for the Duke of Vanholt, calling up historical masques and magicking up fresh grapes, before he becomes involved in the downright stupid escapades involving lost heads and legs and, in the final scenes, wishes to cease having a body altogether, to be buried in the earth or to become as incorporeal as the dew, so as to escape the torments of hell.

It’s a neat idea, but ignores the actual order of some of the adventures, not least that the best one – kissing Helen of Troy – happens at the end. But it does tie together all the adventures and bring out the often tawdry and banal nature of what people actually get when their dreams are fulfilled.

Marlowe’s Greek imagination Shakespeare litters his plays with references to English folklore, dialect words and imagery (the names and symbolism of English flowers, for example). There’s nothing like that in Marlowe. In Marlowe almost every analogy or metaphor references Greek myths or legends. From the masque of Alexander the Great early on through the apparition of Helen of Troy at its climax, through to the best line in the short epilogue mentioning Apollo, and via hundreds of other references, the Greek myths and legends dominate Marlowe’s imagination from start to finish.

Campus tragedy Dr Faustus is a tragedy about an academic. It is a tragedy about the overweening pride which comes from being very learnèd and superior, ‘glutted with learning’s golden gifts… swollen with cunning of a self-conceit’, as the prologue puts it – but lacking wisdom or morality.

In a way, it is a tragedy about the perils of over-education. There’s a modern genre called the campus novel or campus comedy, dating from Kingsley Amis’s novel Lucky Jim and characterising many of David Lodge’s novels. The presence of the three scholars right at the climax of the play highlights the fact that, all the way through, Dr Faustus is a campus tragedy.

Dr Faustus as Marlowe’s psychodrama

Marlowe studied Divinity at university, but also read widely in Latin classical literature. The quote from St John Chrysostom indicates how deeply he knew his theology, and a glance at any of the poems or plays shows how drenched his imagination was in the Greek myths and legends.

It isn’t the most obvious thing about the play, but Dr Faustus can be read as a dramatised debate between these two halves of Marlowe’s education, between the two major cultural traditions of Europe, Christian belief and the enormous cultural heritage of the classical world.

On the whole Faustus’s vision of power and the infinite reach of the human imagination are expressed through metaphors and references to Greek myth – the downsides, the price to pay for overweening ambition, the limits of the purely human, are expressed in theological terms. Man can aspire to the marvellous – but at the end of the day, he is a creature, created by a Creator, to whom he owes an infinite debt.

Obviously this tension is openly expressed throughout the play, most narrowly in the debates between the good and evil angel, or in the warnings of the old man, who wanders in off the street to tell Faustus to repent. It is encoded in the imagery of the play, in the two contrasting sets of symbols and images, one pagan, one Christian.

But you can argue that the debate, the conflict of value systems, comes to a symbolic climax in the figure of Helen of Troy, and her appearance just before Faustus is dragged offstage by the devils.

Helen is maybe the most famous figure from all Greek myth, an image of worldly beauty, of sensual bliss who also epitomises the appeal and attraction of classical culture, and by extension, the world of the Imagination, with its promise of intellectual reward, emotional comfort and psychological reassurance. How many thousands of artists and millions of art-lovers find consolation in turning from the banal, dirty, frail and disappointing realities of the world, to open a book and enter a wonderful world of imaginative consolation.

And yet… Helen has been conjured by a devil. The entire thing is a deception. She is not real, the pleasure she brings is not real. When Faustus says:

Her lips sucks forth my soul: see, where it flies! −

There is a clear and very obvious ambiguity in the line. It is simultaneously a lover’s expression of sensual bliss, the kind of erotic hyperbole common to Renaissance poets and their heirs – but at the same time has a diabolical and theological meaning. The devil who made or is impersonating Helen really is sucking out his soul. The Helen Faustus and the audience sees is a gorgeous mask over a death’s-head skull.

And so, along with being a storming theatrical entertainment, and a satire on the entire notion of the over-ambitious Renaissance Man – Dr Faustus can also be read as dramatising the tensions in Marlowe’s divided mind between the two central traditions of European thought, which he was expert in, which saturated his thinking, and which he never managed to reconcile in his short life.


Related links

Marlowe’s works

Ovid’s Amores translated by Christopher Marlowe

The bed is for lascivious toyings meet (3.13)

Introduction to Ovid

Publius Ovidius Naso, generally known as Ovid (43 BC – 17/18 AD) was a well-known Latin poet who lived at the time of the Emperor Augustus (63 BC – 14 AD), and a younger contemporary of arguably the greatest poet of ancient Rome, Virgil (70 BC – 19 AD).

After years of success and public honours, at the height of his fame, in 8 AD the emperor ordered Ovid to be summarily exiled to the remote backwater of the Black Sea. Possibly some of his verse had offended, either because of their satire or their erotic content. Possibly he had a relationship with the emperor’s daughter Julia. To this day, scholars aren’t completely sure. Augustus ordered Ovid’s works removed from libraries and destroyed, but that seems to have had little effect on his popularity. He was always among the most widely read and imitated of Latin poets and more copies of his works survive than of any other Latin poet.

Amores is Latin for ‘loves’ and the work consists of 48 poems, all in the first person, which describe the poet’s love affair with a rich and unhappily married woman, named Corinna. The series doesn’t tell a well-defined narrative with beginning, middle and end. Some poems seem to refer to specific events, but more often they address topics arising from the general idea of being in love. Some seem aimed at a generic female figure, others wander off the central topic altogether to make general points about Poetry, or the poet’s Muse. One is an elegy to fellow poet Tibullus, who had done much to establish the genre of the erotic elegy.

The word ‘elegy’ has come to mean a lament for someone who’s died, but in Ovid’s day it had the broader meaning of a poem written to or about a specific person – in this case Corinna, although many of the poems are actually written to figures surrounding her, such as her eunuch.

Scholars credit Ovid with taking aspects of the love elegy and developing them further, in particular a subversive irony and humour, ironising his own role as lover, the beloved’s character and, indeed, the whole palaver of being in love, wooing and all the rest of it.

Summary of the Amores

Book 1 contains 15 poems. The first tells of Ovid’s intention to write epic poetry, which is thwarted when Cupid steals a metrical foot from him, changing his work into love elegy. Poem 4 is didactic and describes principles that Ovid would develop in the Ars Amatoria. The fifth poem, describing sex in the afternoon, first introduces Corinna by name. Poems 8 and 9 deal with Corinna selling her love for gifts, while 11 and 12 describe the poet’s failed attempt to arrange a meeting. Poem 14 discusses Corinna’s disastrous experiment in dyeing her hair and 15 stresses the immortality of Ovid and love poets.

The second book contains 19 poems. The opening poem tells of Ovid’s abandonment of a Gigantomachy in favour of elegy. Poems 2 and 3 are entreaties to a guardian to let the poet see Corinna, poem 6 is a lament for Corinna’s dead parrot; poems 7 and 8 deal with Ovid’s affair with Corinna’s servant and her discovery of it, and 11 and 12 try to prevent Corinna from going on vacation. Poem 13 is a prayer to Isis for Corinna’s illness, 14 a poem against abortion, and 19 a warning to unwary husbands.

Book 3 contains 15 poems. The opening piece depicts personified Tragedy and Elegy fighting over Ovid. Poem 2 describes a visit to the races, 3 and 8 focus on Corinna’s interest in other men, 10 is a complaint to Ceres because of her festival that requires abstinence, 13 is a poem on a festival of Juno, and 9 a lament for Tibullus. In poem 11 Ovid decides not to love Corinna any longer and regrets the poems he has written about her. The final poem is Ovid’s farewell to the erotic muse.

The most accessible poems

I have boldened the poems I found easiest to understand and so most enjoyable, being 1.5, 2.4, 2.10, 2.13 and 2.14 about abortion, 3.6 about impotence, 3.8 the elegy to Tibullus, 3.13 telling his mistress to be discreet.

The summaries in italics are in the Penguin edition and appear to be the summaries given in the original Elizabethan edition.

Book 1

1.1 How he was forced by Cupid to write of love instead of war – At the time epic poetry was written in hexameters which have six ‘feet’ or units per line, whereas love poems were written in pentameters with five ‘feet’. The poet humorously complains that he set out to write bold, manly war poetry but that Cupid stole one of the ‘feet’ of his verse, and so now he is condemned to write love poems. He complains this is topsy turvey, Cupid should not have the power to intervene in poetry, but Cupid replied by shooting him with one of his arrows.

Thus I complaind, but Love unlockt his quiver,
Tooke out the shaft, ordaind my hart to shiver:
And bent his sinewy bow upon his knee,
Saying, Poet heers a worke beseeming thee.
Oh woe is me, he never shootes but hits,
I burne, love in my idle bosome sits.

1.2 First captured by love, he endures being led in triumph by Cupid – What is keeping him awake at night? It is love. He gives examples of types of animals which know that fighting against man’s shackles and bridles only makes it worse. Similarly, he has the wisdom to submit.

Yielding or striving do we give him might,
Let’s yield, a burden easily borne is light.

1.3 To his mistress – He describes his devotion and his good qualities as a lover:

Be thou the happy subject of my books
That I may write things worthy thy fair looks.

1.4 He advises his love what devices and signals they ought to employ when they were at dinner with her husband present – The poet goes to a dinner party along with his lover and her husband and gives a long list of instructions to her not to dally too much or too openly with him, not to hang about his neck, fondle his chin, entwine her legs with his and the secret signs they will use to convey their passion to each other.

View me, my becks, and speaking countenance;
Take, and return each secret amorous glance.
Words without voice shall on my eyebrows sit,
Lines thou shalt read in wine by my hand writ.

1.5 Sex with Corinna – He describes an afternoon when Corinna comes to his rooms and they make love (quoted in full below).

1.6 To her porter, to open the door for him – He begs Corinna’s doorkeeper to let him into the house to see his love. This is an example, believe it or not, of a recognised genre, the paraclausithyron, the ‘door poem’ or ‘lament beside the door’, in which the exclusus amator (‘shut-out lover’) addresses the door or doorkeeper keeping him from his mistress. Horace wrote a poem threatening the door, Tibullus appealed to the door, Propertius wrote a poem in which the door is the speaker. The trope was revived by some of the troubadors, recurs in Victorian poetry, and lives on into our day, witness the 1971 song Can’t You Hear Me Knocking? by the Rolling Stones:

Can’t you hear me knockin’ on your window
Can’t you hear me knockin’ on your door

1.7 That his mistress, who he has beaten, should make peace with him – In a blind rage he hits his lover, then sees her tears and throws himself at her feet in regret.

1.8 He reviles the bawd who has been introducing his mistress to the courtesan’s art – The longest poem in book 1, the poet describes the ancient bawd and procuress Dipsas as a witch and then overhears, from a hiding place, the old crone giving his mistress lessons on how to keep a lover on tenterhooks. At the end of her lecture the poet heartily curses her.

1.9 To Atticus: that a lover may not be lazy, any more than a soldier – The poet compares lovers with soldiers, including the greats of the tale of Troy, and says he is like a soldier, at his mistress’ beck and call as a soldier is of his captain’s.

1.10 To his girl, that she should not demand money for her love – He complains that alone among species, female humans refrain from sex until given gifts, until bought like whores.

The mare asks not the horse, the cow the bull,
Nor the mild ewe gifts from the ram doth pull.
Only a woman gets spoils from a man,
Farms out herself on nights for what she can;
And lets [prevents] what both delight, what both desire,
Making her joy according to her hire.

He swears that the gift he gives his mistress – his – will last long after the gold and jewels that common mistresses demand.

1.11 He pleads with Nape to carry a letter to Corinna – He asks Corinna’s maid to take a message to her and await her reply.

1.12 To those who begrudge the poet eternal fame – He seems to be attacking a book or books or manuscript, maybe it’s a letter announcing his mistress cannot visit.

1.13 To Dawn, not to hurry – He criticises the dawn for waking humanity from its rest and forcing all kinds of people, trades and animals to their daily work.

Poor travellers though tired, rise at thy sight,
And soldiers make them ready to the fight.
The painful hind by thee to field is sent;
Slow oxen early in the yoke are pent.
Thou coz’nest boys of sleep, and dost betray them
To pedants that with cruel lashes pay them.

But, worst of all, parting him from his mistress.

1.14 He consoles his girl, whose hair has fallen out from excessive hair-washing  – He mocks Corinna for cutting off her hair and dyeing the rest and then complaining about the result.

She holds, and views her old locks in her lap;
Ay me! rare gifts unworthy such a hap!

1.15 To those who begrudge the poet eternal fame – The book ends with Ovid describing the immortal fame achieved by the great poets of the past and the subjects they wrote about (Troy, Aeneas, the golden fleece) and that he will be among them (as he, indeed, is).

Therefore when flint and iron wear away,
Verse is immortal and shall ne’er decay.
To[ verse let kings give place and kingly shows,
And banks o’er which gold-bearing Tagus flows.
Let base-conceited wits admire vild things;
Fair Phœbus lead me to the Muses’ springs.

Book 2

2.1 Why he is impelled to write of love, rather than of titanic struggles – The poet describes the sort of audience that he desires, hot maids looking for a husband and boys hurt, like him, by Cupid’s arrows. He jokingly says what good will it do him to write about Achilles or Odysseus, they’re long dead? But if he writes a poem to a pretty woman, he might get a snog out of it!

2.2 To Bagous, to keep a more lax watch over his mistress, who has been entrusted to him – The poet asks Bagous, a woman’s servant, to help him gain access to his mistress in a poem I found largely incomprehensible.

2.3 To the eunuch serving his mistress – The poet addresses a eunuch, arguing he should let him see his mistress.

2.4 That he loves women of all sorts – An unusually comprehensible poem in which the poet explains that he loves every woman he sees, tall or short, dark or fair, coy or brazen, singing or silent, dancing or plodding:

I cannot rule myself but where Love please;
Am driven like a ship upon rough seas.
No one face likes me best, all faces move,
A hundred reasons make me ever love.

2.5 To his faithless mistress – How lucky is a lover who intercepts letters or hears gossip that his lover is unfaithful: because she can deny it and he can believe her. But the poet saw with his own eyes how, when a dinner party had ended, she kissed at length, with tongues, ‘another’ (presumably her husband).

2.6 On the death of his parrot – A pet parrot has died and he expends numerous classical analogies in mourning it. Despite reading the poem several times I can’t work out whether the parrot belonged to Corinna, or the poet, or whether Corinna is meant to be speaking (‘The parrot, from East India to me sent/Is dead…’)

2.7 He swears to his mistress that he has not made love to her maid – The poet complains that she’s always accusing him of something, in this case of sleeping with her handmaiden Cypassis. The poet denies it based on class loyalty, he would never demean himself to have sex with a slave. He throws in an unnerving detail – that her back is ‘rough with stripes’. From being whipped!?

With Venus’ game who will a servant grace?
Or any back, made rough with stripes, embrace?

2.8 To Cypassis, Corinna’s maid – In humorous contrast to the preceding poem, the poet now addresses Cypassis freely admitting that they’ve been having sex, and using classical precedents (Achilles and Agamemnon both had affairs with servants) as freely to justify the affair to Cypassis as he had used others to deny it to Corinna.

The poem appears to take place in real time, i.e. is his part of a dialogue, because after he’s taken the credit for speaking up in her defence when Corinna accused her, he promptly asks her to lie with him as a reward and, when she refuses, gets cross and threatens to reveal the truth to her mistress (which would, presumably, lead to another whipping).

2.9 To Cupid – The poet reproaches Cupid for causing him so much pain in love, for driving him like a headstrong horse or a storm at sea, when he (the poet) is a fellow soldier, a colleague, in love’s wars.

2.10 To Graecinus, that he can love two at once – His friend Graecinus told him it was impossible to be in love with two women at the same time, but he is (‘Which is the loveliest, it is hard to say’)! He describes the joy of two lovers at length and humorously gloats over his enemies who lie alone at night in their big empty beds.

2.11 To his mistress sailing – He is very anxious indeed about a planned sea voyage Corinna is going to make, curses the pioneers of sea adventures, and then invokes a ton of gods to look after her, before anticipating the joy of their reunion when she returns.

2.12 He rejoices that he has conquered his mistress – A humorous poem in which he compares himself to a mighty warrior and says he deserves to be crowned with bay leaves like the traditional victor of a campaign because he has won Corinna who is even at this moment lying on his breast, a victory greater than the defeat of Troy.

2.13 To Isis, to aid Corinna in Labour– He prays to the Egyptian goddess, Isis, and to Lucina goddess of childbirth, to protect and save Corinna who is having an abortion he is sure is from him, save Corinna and, in doing so, also save the anxious poet.

My wench, Lucina, I entreat thee favour;
Worthy she is, thou should’st in mercy save her.

2.14 To his mistress, who has attempted an abortion – The poet laments that, although women are not involved in war, they have come up with ways to harm themselves, namely having abortions which, apparently, involves ‘hid irons’ and ‘dire poison’. If all women had practiced abortion, the world would be empty, there would have been no Priam or Achilles (as usual his mind goes straight to the Trojan Wars), no Romulus and Rome, in fact no Ovid and Corinna.

2.15 To a ring which he has given his mistress – He wishes he were his mistress ring so he could familiarly touch her lap and pap.

2.16 To his mistress, to come to his country estate – He wishes his mistress would come to his country estate in Sulmo (in the Abruzzi, a region of east-central Italy). He gives an extensive description of the region’s natural beauties but says that, without her, it means nothing.

2.17 That he will serve only Corinna – He laments that his mistress is well aware how beautiful she is and this makes her haughty and disdainful. He recalls how many women from classical myth accepted a more junior lover e.g. Venus with club-footed Vulcan.

And thou, my light, accept me howsoever;
Lay in the mid bed, there be my lawgiver.

2.18 To Macer, writing of his love poems – Another poem pointing out that he would like to write of war and high tragedy but his mistress is wriggling on his lap, refuses to go when he orders her, and so his poems end up being about love and his love emotions.

I yield, and back my wit from battles bring,
Domestic acts, and mine own wars to sing.

2.19 – To his rival, her husband, who does not guard his wife – He is irritated with the husband for making Corinna so available. Forbidden love is sweeter, and he rattles off a list of women from myth and legend who were difficult to attain and so fired up their lovers more (Danae kept in a high tower, Io guarded by Juno)

What flies I follow, what follows me I shun.

In fact, he warns the husband, unless he starts protecting her more seriously, Ovid is going to give up being her lover, it’s too easy, it’s boring.

Now I forewarn, unless to keep her stronger
Thou dost begin, she shall be mine no longer.

Book 3

3.1 The poet’s deliberation whether to continue writing elegies or to turn to tragedy – Walking in a wood he is confronted by personifications of Elegy and Tragedy. Tragedy says he has become a laughing stock, writing about his lewd love affairs. Time to fulfil his talents and write Great Things. Elegy replies that she is light and trivial and yet suited for some subjects. She dresses out Venus and Corinna. The poet says he will turn to Grand Things in time and Tragedy appears to grant him a period to continue dawdling with trivial love, before turning to Higher Things. A worry which is still nagging him in 3.10:

When Thebes, when Troy, when Cæsar should be writ,
Alone Corinna moves my wanton wit.

3.2 To his mistress watching the races – He has come to the races, not to look at the horse, but his mistress. As avidly as she feeds on the arduous horse, he feeds on sight of her. There is an extended description of every element of a Roman horse-race and how they can be metaphorically applied to his feverish wooing.

3.3 On his mistress, who has lied to him – He is appalled that his mistress has lied to him and yet looks just as beautiful and desirable as before. Are there no gods, is there no justice? Characteristically, he launches into a long list of legendary figures and asks why the gods bothered punishing them so excessively if they are going to let his mistress off scot-free?

3.4 To a man who guards his wife – He warns a man who is trying to guard his lover from adultery that it will have the opposite effect: forbidden fruit tastes sweeter; it is nature to hanker for what is banned.

3.5 To a torrent, while he is on his way to his mistress – He has travelled day and night to reach his lover and now is prevented by a river in flood as the mountain snows thaw. Characteristically, he then compares the flooded river to numerous other rivers in Graeco-Roman mythology, an extended litany which helps to make this the longest poem in the book.

3.6 He bewails the fact that, in bed with his mistress, he was unable to perform – 

Though both of us performed our true intent,
Yet could I not cast anchor where I meant.

Interestingly, he points out that whatever caused the first failure, it was compounded by shame i.e. embarrassment. Interesting because that is, indeed, how erectile disfunction works, the more aware you become, the worse it gets, and the more humiliated you feel. At several points he directly describes the failing member:

Yet like as if cold hemlock I had drunk,
It mockèd me, hung down the head and sunk…

Yet notwithstanding, like one dead it lay,
Drooping more than a rose pulled yesterday…

3.7 He mourns that his mistress will not receive him – He is consumed with anger and jealousy that his mistress has rejected him, ‘the pure priest of Phoebus and the Muses’, for a battle-scarred hunk whose hands are bloody from the men he’s killed. Alas, poetry and the arts are now worth less than gold – Barbarism!

3.8 He mourns the death of Tibullus – Albius Tibullus (c. 55 BC – 19 BC) was a Latin poet and writer of elegies. In Ovid’s poem Cupid has broken his bow and mourns. He compares Tibullus’ death to those of legendary heroes and says death makes him doubt the existence of the gods.

Outrageous death profanes all holy things,
And on all creatures obscure darkness brings.

It is a sweet and moving elegy, in the modern sense of the word.

3.9 To Ceres, complaining that because of her ceremonies he is not allowed to sleep with his mistress – The Festival of Ceres prevents Ovid from meeting his mistress who lies alone in an empty bed. There is an extended description of Ceres’ history and attributes, before he concludes that he’d rather be celebrating a festival to Venus!

3.10 To his mistress, from whose love he cannot free himself – So many times he has been turned away from her door and slept on the floor. ‘Long have I borne much, mad thy faults me make.’ He has impersonated one of her servants and seen many a sated lover leaving her bedroom, observed her tricks and signs to lovers at dinner parties, put up with her lies and deceptions. But now he has made some kind of break:

Now have I freed myself, and fled the chain,
And what I have borne, shame to bear again.

Now hate and love fight in his breast.

Now love and hate my light breast each way move,
But victory, I think, will hap to love.
I’ll hate, if I can; if not, love ‘gainst my will,

Torn: ‘Nor with thee, nor without thee can I live.’

3.11 He complains that his lover is so well known through his poems that she is available to many rival lovers – Actually, when you stop and reflect on the previous 40 or so poems, you realise that he has not in fact painted a particularly vivid picture of his lover. Horse-racing, his native countryside, the maid he had a fling with, the doorkeeper, her husband, even the details of horse-racing – and lots and lots of references to classical myths, yes, certainly. But in a curious way, the mistress – if her name is Corinna – is strangely absent from many of the poems, and even when she’s explicitly named, a strangely fugitive presence.

Which makes you realise how conventional this poem lamenting that fact that he’s made her famous, actually is.

Characteristically, he turns to classical mythology to give examples of how vivid and blazing and enduring the poet’s myths and fables have been.

3.12 On the feast of Juno – A straightfoward description of the Festival of Juno, which takes place in the town of his wife’s birth, Falsica (Falerii), and its origins. He ends the poem by piously hoping that Juno will favour both him and the townspeople.

3.13 – To his mistress; if she will be licentious, let her do it discreetly – He tells her not to boast about her night’s adventures, if she is going to stray, at least have the decency to be discreet about it. Be as wanton as she likes in bed, but, risen and dressed and in company, be sage and graceful and proper. That will make it easier for him to overlook her infidelities.

3.14 To Venus, putting an end to his elegies – In a relatively short, poignant poem, he bids farewell to ‘tender Love’s mother’ i.e. Venus, to ‘weak elegies’ and his ‘delightful muse’. What gives it a particular feel is that it is almost devoid of the extensive lists of gods and heroes which pad out most of the poems. Instead he speaks fondly of his home among the Paeligni tribe of the Abruzzi. Whereas visitors might think it fitting that Mantua sired the great poet Vergil and Verona was home to Catullus, they might be surprised that the little town of Sulmo was his birthplace. But he loves it and will praise it. And now it is time to move on, to tackle a greater ground with a greater horse. To move onto the more Serious kind of poetry which has periodically nagged him throughout the series.

Marlowe’s translation

Marlowe’s Ovid is the earliest, the least studied of his works and the most dismissed. One reason is the technical inaccuracies, errors and mistranslations which, apparently, crop up in every line, partly Marlowe’s errors, partly because the printed texts he was working from were themselves inaccurate.

This, understandably, irks Latin scholars and has resulted in 400 years of negative reviews. We, however, need not be very troubled by these pedantic concerns about literal accuracy. A hundred years ago Ezra Pound showed that translations can be full of howlers but still be very beautiful (Cathay). The thing deserves to be judged on its own terms.

That said, these poems are often boring and quite hard to follow. Why? Having just read Hero and Leander and the first couple of plays, I think it’s for several inter-connected reasons:

The couplet form

Ovid’s original was written in couplets, that’s to say paired lines, sentences divided into two lines which end with a full stop. The impact of reading a series of self-contained rhymed couplets quickly becomes monotonous. It feels mechanical.

Aye me an Eunuch keepes my mistrisse chaste,
That cannot Venus mutuall pleasure taste.
Who first depriv’d yong boyes of their best part,
With selfe same woundes he gave, he ought to smart.
To kinde requests thou wouldst more gentle prove,
If ever wench had made luke-warme thy love.

It feels like Marlowe is cabined and confined by this format. He is clearly constrained to convey Ovid’s original meaning and struggles to do so within the narrow bounds of the couplet. It routinely feels like he is contorting normal English phrasing or rhythm, so much so that I found it very difficult to understand what entire poems were actually about. 1.2 mentions a husband and husbands generally, but I struggled to understand even one line.

I sawe ones legges with fetters blacke and blewe,
By whom the husband his wives incest knewe.
More he deserv’d, to both great harme he fram’d,
The man did grieve, the woman was defam’d.
Trust me all husbands for such faults are sad
Nor make they any man that heare them glad.
If he loves not, deafe eares thou doest importune,
Or if he loves, thy tale breedes his misfortune.

The pronouns, and the apparent subject, of the poem keep changing so that I’m not sure who’s being talked about. I’ve no idea why incest has cropped up, I’ve no idea who the man is, or the woman is in the first four lines. I don’t understand what faults are being referred to, and I nearly understand the last couplet but don’t really know who the ‘thou’ referred to is. Is it the poet’s lover Corinna? But if so, why does her tale breed ‘his misfortune’?

Latin

Latin is a more compact language than English. Its declensions and conjugations, the way it changes the ends of the words to convey changes in case for nouns, and tense and person for verbs, mean that one Latin word can convey what can easily take two, three or four English words to express.

Latin can elegantly fit into two lines ideas and meanings which English can only fit into the tight straitjacket by mangling word order and meaning. To give one repeated example of this at work, many of the poems start with a ringing couplet whose first line sounds fine because he has written it out at full length, so to speak – but whose second line is incomprehensible, as Marlowe tries to fit into the second line a meaning which really requires one and a half or two. Quite often the second lines are incomprehensible.

I ask but right, let her that caught me late,
Either love, or cause that I may never hate… (?)

Bind fast my hands, they have deservèd chains,
While rage is absent, take some friend the pains…(?)

I, Ovid, poet, of my wantonness,
Born at Peligny, to write more address. (?)

It explains why Marlowe continually distorts normal word order and sense. In the poem about the doorkeeper, he writes:

Little I ask, a little entrance make,
The gate half-ope my bent side in will take.
Long love my body to such use makes slender,
And to get out doth like apt members render.

So, the first line is fairly smooth and understandable, the second is peculiarly phrased (‘bent side’?). The third line is understandable if you make the effort to read it carefully, and the fourth line is gibberish. He’s mangling the English because he’s trying to shoehorn a Latin meaning which simply contains more than an English couplet can handle.

The net effect is that it’s possible to read line after line, poem after poem, without really understanding what they’re about. Easy to begin skipping verse which is so hard to get a grasp of, or reading through entire passages without properly understanding them. Takes this couplet from 1.3:

I love but one, and her I love change never,
If men have faith, I’ll live with thee for ever.

The first line is so compacted you have to read it several times to parse the meaning – the second half of the second line is clear enough, but I don’t quite get why he’ll live with his love forever ‘if men have faith’. What have other men got to do with it? Maybe it means something like, ‘as long as men are faithful, I’ll live with thee forever’, but the little shoebox of the heroic couplet forces him to abbreviate English words so much as to teeter on the incomprehensible.

Contrast with Marlowe the playwright

Taken together what the set highlights, by being such a sharp contrast to it, is Marlowe’s natural gift for a completely different type of verse when he is writing at will and with freedom – for verse which flows freely for entire paragraphs – his gift for rolling lines which convey a luxurious flow of meaning over 5, 6, 7 or more lines, the kind of wonderfully fluent passages you find again and again in the plays. Here is Jupiter flirting with Ganymede at the start of his earliest play, Dido, Queen of Carthage:

Sit on my knee, and call for thy content,
Control proud Fate, and cut the thread of Time;
Why, are not all the gods at thy command,
And Heaven and earth the bounds of thy delight?
Vulcan shall dance to make thee laughing sport,
And my nine daughters sing when thou art sad;
From Juno’s bird I’ll pluck her spotted pride,
To make thee fans wherewith to cool thy face:
And Venus’ swans shall shed their silver down,
To sweeten out the slumbers of thy bed:

What makes this both enjoyable and understandable is they way the same basic thought (‘I’ll give you anything you want, sweet Ganymede’) expands out over ten lines. All the examples repeat the same basic idea – that all the gods will dance at Ganymede’s command – and the reader, having once grasped the basic idea, is freed up to enjoy the poet’s embellishments and elaborations. We readers revel in Marlowe’s inventiveness and fluency and therein lies the mental pleasure, the sense of luxury which derives from the effortlessness with which Marlowe spins out elegantly phrased elaborations of the theme. It’s like a luxury hotel, every room is smoothly and tastefully furnished.

Seeing Marlowe pace up and down the cage of these rhyming couplets, makes you appreciate it even more when you see him released to go bounding joyfully across the open sunny savannah of the blank verse of his plays.

The dead parrot

Whereas in the Ovid translations, the reader continually feels, along with the poet, that his natural grandiloquent discursiveness has been chopped up and cramped into bite-sized couplets. The poem about the death of Corinna’s parrot ought to be funny, the subject is potentially humorous, but the performance feels stuttery and confined.

Elisium hath a wood of holme trees black,
Whose earth doth not perpetuall greene-grasse lacke,
There good birds rest (if we beleeve things hidden)
Whence uncleane fowles are said to be forbidden.
There harrnelesse Swans feed all abroad the river,
There lives the Phoenix one alone bird ever.
There Junoes bird displayes his gorgious feather,
And loving Doves kisse eagerly together.
The Parrat into wood receiv’d with these,
Turnes all the goodly birdes to what she please.

What does ‘if we believe things hidden’ really mean? That belief in the afterlife is some esoteric knowledge? – but it wasn’t. As in hundreds of other lines, the meaning is puzzlingly meaningless or unclear. The line about harmless swans on the river is easy enough to understand but, although you can see the idea lurking behind ‘there lives the Phoenix one alone bird ever’, the actual phrasing feels clumsy and contorted, and poetry is about the actual phrasing.

Juno’s bird (the peacock) displaying her gorgeous feather I understand alright, and the loving turtle doves are a stock cliché – but the final couplet is horrible: ‘The parrot into wood received with these’ is just horrible phrasing, and what does the final line actually mean? Is it something to do with the parrot’s ability to mimic the other birds? I’ve no idea.

Love in the afternoon

Of the 45 poems only one manages to be both completely understandable and to show the extended fluency on a simple idea which distinguishes the more relaxed and fluent verse of his plays – which explains why it’s the one that is always included in anthologies.

Book 1 Elegy 5

In summer’s heat, and mid-time of the day,
To rest my limbs upon a bed I lay;
One window shut, the other open stood,
Which gave such light as twinkles in a wood,
Like twilight glimpse at setting of the sun,
Or night being past, and yet not day begun.
Such light to shamefaced maidens must be shown,
Where they may sport, and seem to be unknown.
Then came Corinna in a long loose gown,
Her white neck hid with tresses hanging down,
Resembling fair Semiramis going to bed
Or Lais of a thousand wooers sped.
I snatched her gown: being thin, the harm was small,
Yet strived she to be covered there withal.
And striving thus, as one that would be cast,
Betrayed herself, and yielded at the last.
Stark naked as she stood before mine eye,
Not one wen in her body could I spy.
What arms and shoulders did I touch and see!
How apt her breasts were to be pressed by me!
How smooth a belly under her waist saw I,
How large a leg, and what a lusty thigh!
To leave the rest, all liked me passing well,
I clinged her naked body, down she fell:
Judge you the rest; being tired she bade me kiss;
Jove send me more such afternoons as this!

And then, it’s about a naked woman and sex, which always helps.

Legacy

There are several points to make.

1. Marlowe’s sonnet sequence

Although they are obviously not sonnets, and he didn’t write them from scratch, nonetheless the Amores can be thought of as ‘Marlowe’s sonnet sequence’. Most other leading poets of the day wrote an extended series of sonnets, all addressed to the same remote and aloof mistress, which they used to explore different moods and subjects, some tragic, some humorous. Examples include Astrophil and Stella by Sir Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser’s sequence Amoretti, Shakespeare’s Sonnets and the set which is sometimes seen as ending the fashion, Michael Drayton’s Idea sequence.

The point is, the Amores played something of the same role for Marlowe, allowing him to experiment with how to phrase in English a wide variety of moods, emotions and tones of voice. Each of the poems tends to make a case i.e. is not a flow of emotion, but a string of rhetorical arguments around a particular love-related issue (jealousy, passion, anger, regret). So you could argue that the Amores was practice, warming up and rehearsal for deploying variations on all these emotions in the mouths of the characters in his plays, for example the variety of arguments deployed by Aeneas and Dido as they fall in and out of love.

2. Grabby openings

One of the often-noted features of both Shakespeare’s sonnets and John Donne’s lyrics, is their colloquial, dramatic, buttonholing opening lines – ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day’ or ‘I wonder by my troth what thou and I did till we loved…’ being examples of Shakespeare and Donne, respectively.

The point is you can make the case that Marlowe helped establish this tone – that instead of the long and formal exordium of earlier Renaissance poetry,  Marlowe’s translations leap straight in with colloquial, chatty or arresting openings:

What makes my bed seem hard seeing it is soft?

Thy husband to a banquet goes with me…

Bind fast my hands, they have deservèd chains…

Leave colouring thy tresses, I did cry…

Ay me, an eunuch keeps my mistress chaste… (2.3)

Well, maybe. Maybe some of them. But just as many start with crabbed or obscure lines, simple situational setups, or promising phrases which are then bent and broken:

An old wood stands, uncut of long years’ space,
‘Tis credible some godhead haunts the place…

I sit not here the noble horse to see;
Yet whom thou favour’st, pray may conqueror be.

What, are there gods? herself she hath forswore,
And yet remains the face she had before.

Rude man, ’tis vain thy damsel to commend
To keeper’s trust: their wits should them defend.

Flood with reed-grown slime banks, till I be past
Thy waters stay: I to my mistress haste.

3. The ubiquity of classical mythology

So obvious it’s easy to overlook, but the Amores are stuffed with references to the gods and legends of the ancient world. Probably Marlowe read Horace and Virgil, too, and many other Latin authors, but the way the characters of the gods and the stories of their adventures continually pop into the poet’s mind to illustrate almost every point he’s making, will also characterise the plays – certainly Dido and Tamburlaine – where all the characters invoke the Roman gods, the characters from the tale of Troy, plus stock stories from ancient myth.

4. Classical padding

About half way through I began to notice a pattern to many of the poems: Ovid states the situation and describes it in fairly realistic terms. And then, around line 10, he will suddenly switch to invoking classical precedents. One minute he’s addressing his mistress, doorkeeper, friend etc. Then there is almost always a swerve, a change of tone, and he suddenly begins a (usually very extended) list of comparisons with figures from myth and legend. This suggests two thoughts:

  • It is padding. He can pad out any thought, emotion or moment by invoking a classical precedent and then describing it at length, or alternatively piling up a list of quickfire precedents. Either way, most of the poems are twice as long as the ostensible subject justifies, because they have these long passages invoking Venus and Vulcan and Jove and Achilles and so on.
  • I wonder to what extent people living in those times really did structure, categorise and make sense of their human experience through the filter of classical myth and legend. We nowadays – I think – invoke a range of discourses, popular sayings about mental health, maybe, or gender stereotyping or other cliches, maybe about northerners and southerners, or class-based tropes. I’m not in a position to make a full list and I dare say it varies from person to person. But whereas we might think ‘I’m depressed, I’m stressed, it’s sexism, the management don’t know what they’re doing’ – those kinds of categories – I wonder if denizens of the ancient world actually thought, ‘Well beautiful Venus had an affair with ugly Vulcan, this is like jealous Juno taking her revenge on Hercules, he’s sulking like Achilles’ and so on. Or was it only in the poems? Is it an entirely literary artifact?

5. Poetry lasts forever

People still talk about Troy, the Trojan War, Helen of Troy, getting on for 3,000 years after the stories were first told. Ovid is still mentioned, discussed and quoted long after most of the generals and all the politicians of his day are forgotten. Poetry really does outlast not only men’s lives, but entire civilisations. It’s an ancient trope because it’s true. In this couplet, I like the way he places poetry alongside ‘history’s pretence’.

Poets’ large power is boundless and immense,
Nor have their words true history’s pretence.

That’s a complicated word, ‘pretence’, because it involves effort and aspiration (pretensions), but also acting and dissembling. History is the attempt to make sense of what has happened but, as I’ve made clear in my 350 history reviews, it is always a story, or an attempt to frame a meaningful narrative. And the sense of what history is, what it is for, as well as the actual ‘histories’ of every period, change and mutate over time. But not Ovid’s words, or Marlowe’s. When Marlowe wrote ‘Is this the face that launched a thousand ships’ he made something which will last as long as the English language.

It’s a trope, it’s a cliché which recurs as on of the threads running through the Amores. But it’s true.


Related links

Marlowe’s works

Hero and Leander by Christopher Marlowe

Scholarship attributes Marlowe’s poems – Hero and Leander and his translations of Ovid and Lucan – to his time at Cambridge, before he came down to London and started writing for the stage i.e. before he was 23.

Hero and Leander is incomplete. Marlowe conceived it as a miniature epic or epyllion retelling the ancient love story of Hero and Leander in rhyming couplets. He wrote two sections (of 484 and 334 lines, respectively) before breaking off. The poem takes up just 24 pages of the Penguin edition of Marlowe’s complete poetry.

After Marlowe’s death, the poem was continued and completed by fellow playwright and poet, George Chapman. Chapman’s continuation takes up 56 pages i.e. is twice as long as the original. It was Chapman who divided the ‘completed’ poem, including Marlowe’s part, into sestiads, a word he made up referring to the city of Sestos where the poem is set, on the model of The Iliad which describes the war at Ilium (as Troy was then known).

These medium-length poems on a classical subject were popular in late-Elizabethan England. Frequently taken from the works of the Roman poet Ovid, they were generally about Love, often with strong erotic or sensual overtones. They were fashionably Italian in tone and were aimed at a refined and knowledgeable audience. Shakespeare wrote something similar with his Venus and Adonis.

The legend

The first thing to get straight is that Hero is the name of the woman in the story. She is a priestess of Aphrodite who lives in a tower in Sestos, a city on the European side of the Hellespont (the narrow strip of water near modern Istanbul which separates Europe from Asia Minor.

Leander is a young man from Abydos on the opposite side of the strait. Leander spies Hero at a festival of Adonis, on the spot falls in love with her, woos and wins her then every subsequent night swims across the Hellespont to spend time with her. Hero lights a lamp at the top of her tower to guide him on his nightly swim.

Their meetings last a long, hot summer. But one stormy winter night, a strong wind blows out Hero’s lamp and Leander loses his way in the storm-tossed sea and drowns. When Hero sees his dead body, she throws herself from the top of her tower to join him in death.

Sestiad one (484 lines)

The tone, the register, the descriptions are from the start over the top and exorbitant, much like the style of the plays. We learn that Hero was wooed by Apollo, no less, that her dress is stained with blood for all the suitors who have died for her sake. She has soaked up so much beauty that nature wept and turned half the world black (the commentators aren’t quite sure whether this means black-haired [as opposed to radiant blonde] or to the fact that any one moment half of the earth is in darkness):

So lovely-fair was Hero, Venus’ nun,
As Nature wept, thinking she was undone,
Because she took more from her than she left,
And of such wondrous beauty her bereft:
Therefore, in sign her treasure suffer’d wrack,
Since Hero’s time hath half the world been black.

Cupid was said to have looked on her and been struck blind her beauty. Or to routinely mistake Hero for his mother, the goddess of Love. Nor is Leander any less heroically beautiful. His hair would have outshone the famous golden fleece sought by Jason and the Argonauts. The moon (Cynthia) longs to be embraced by him. Zeus might have drunk from his hand.

Many commentators have pointed out that Marlowe devotes just as sensual a description to Leander as to Hero, and use this as evidence for the claim that Marlowe was gay.

His dangling tresses, that were never shorn,
Had they been cut, and unto Colchos borne,
Would have allur’d the venturous youth of Greece
To hazard more than for the golden fleece.
Fair Cynthia wished his arms might be her Sphere;
Grief makes her pale, because she moves not there.
His body was as straight as Circe’s wand;
Jove might have sipt out nectar from his hand.
Even as delicious meat is to the tast,
So was his neck in touching, and surpast
The white of Pelops’ shoulder: I could tell ye,
How smooth his breast was, and how white his belly;
And whose immortal fingers did imprint
That heavenly path with many a curious dint
That runs along his back; but my rude pen
Can hardly blazon forth the loves of men,
Much less of powerful gods: let it suffice
That my slack Muse sings of Leander’s eyes;
Those orient cheeks and lips, exceeding his
That leapt into the water for a kiss [Narcissus]
Of his own shadow, and, despising many,
Died ere he could enjoy the love of any.
Had wild Hippolytus Leander seen,
Enamour’d of his beauty had he been:
His presence made the rudest peasant melt,
That in the vast uplandish country dwelt;
The barbarous Thracian soldier, mov’d with nought,
Was mov’d with him, and for his favour sought.
Some swore he was a maid in man’s attire,
For in his looks were all that men desire,—
A pleasant-smiling cheek, a speaking eye,
A brow for love to banquet royally;
And such as knew he was a man, would say,
‘Leander, thou art made for amorous play:
Why art thou not in love, and loved of all?
Though thou be fair, yet be not thine own thrall.’

So, yes, possibly, you might claim some of these lines as proving that Marlowe was gay or had a gay sensibility – although, rereading the factual information about him, I now realise the evidence for this is actually very slender, based on hearsay and the written evidence of spies and liars.

The real point, for me, of a passage like this is surely how easy it is to read, easy and stylish and confident, brash, verging on the bombastic. Zeus would have drunk out of his hand! Because the poem starts in this high tone it’s easy to overlook how absurdly overblown a lot of its descriptions and claims are. Here is the description of Venus’ temple where Hero is a ‘nun’:

The walls were of discolour’d jasper-stone,
Wherein was Proteus carved; and over-head
A lively vine of green sea-agate spread,
Where by one hand light-headed Bacchus hung,
And with the other wine from grapes out-wrung.
Of crystal shining fair the pavement was;
The town of Sestos call’d it Venus’ glass:
There might you see the gods, in sundry shapes,
Committing heady riots, incests, rapes;

The vigour, the energy of the conception is captured in the riots, incests and rapes of the disgraceful gods (which he goes on to summarise for another ten lines). Power. Energy. Dynamism. This is what Ben Jonson meant when he referred to Marlowe’s ‘mighty line’.

The lion’s share of the first sestiad (lines 199 to 340) is devoted to a long section of Leander pleading with Hero to have sex with him, ‘his worthy love-suit’. Leander lines up a battery of arguments, cast in the pseudo-philosophical form popular at the time, to persuade Hero out of her priestly virginity and into loving and sleeping with him. In fluent succession he argues:

  • why does Hero worship Venus when she surpasses her so much in beauty
  • he vows to excel all others in her service
  • women must be used like musical instruments or metal jars, both of which go off and tarnish without use
  • lone women are like empty houses, which collapse and decline
  • women need men to validate them:

One is no number; maids are nothing, then,
Without the sweet society of men.

  • women are like raw gold which needs to be stamped with the owner’s imprimatur to gain value
  • virginity is nothing, has no reality, you can’t point to it or weigh it – therefore it means nothing

This idol, which you term virginity,
Is neither essence subject to the eye,
No, nor to any one exterior sense,
Nor hath it any place of residence,
Nor is’t of earth or mould celestial,
Or capable of any form at all.
Of that which hath no being, do not boast;
Things that are not at all, are never lost.

  • how can virginity be called virtuous when we are born with it – only that can be virtuous which we strive for and achieve
  • she is so beautiful that if she lives alone, people won’t think she is virtuous, they’ll think she is being maintained by some rich man as his mistress
  • Venus likes banquets, Doric music, midnight revel, plays and masks – by rejecting all this life and human interaction for the life of the cloister Hero is ‘a holy idiot’ (line 333) in fact she is committing a sin against her goddess
  • she will most resemble Venus when she carries out ‘Venus’ sweet rites’ i.e. sex
  • rich corn dies if it is no reaped – beauty in solitude is lost

Who cares whether any of this is true or not (or sexist or misogynist) – the point is the roll, the rise, the rhythm of Marlowe’s arguments, breaking over Hero’s poor bowed head like the waves of the sea.

In fact Hero had long ago given in to his arguments, to his good looks and to Cupid’s arrow, though, as he reaches to embrace her, she eludes him. Instead she explains that she lives in a high tower on the coast, attended by ‘a dwarfish beldam’ who keeps her company with chatter and ‘apish merriment’. Before she knows it she’s said ‘Come thither’ but is immediately ashamed, regrets her boldness, casts her hands up to heaven – but Cupid beats down her prayers, turning her tears to pearls.

The digression about Hermes and the Destinies

At this point the entire narrative shifts scene and the last hundred lines (377 – 484) go off at a strange tangent, describing a peculiar story using Greek characters but, apparently made up by Marlowe himself. In this digression, Hermes messenger of the gods, on the same day he laid Argus asleep, spied a country maid and pursues and woos her and tumbles her to the ground, but as he’s undressing her she suddenly starts up and runs off shouting, so Hermes follows her, wooing her with stories and these make her stop to listen. At length she asks him to bring him a cup of the ‘flowing nectar’ on which the gods feast, and so Hermes pops up to heaven and steals some off Hebe, handmaiden to the gods and returns to earth to hand it to his shepherdess-lover.

Zeus discovers this theft and is more angry than he was when Prometheus stole the fire (everything is more than, the best, the toppermost). Zeus banishes Hermes from heaven and the sad god goes wandering up and down the earth till he bumps into Cupid and tells his tale of woe. This is all the prompting Cupid needs to take revenge on Zeus, and he shoots the ‘adamantine Destinies’ with his golden darts so they fall in love with Hermes and will do anything he asks.

Hermes goes way over the top and commands the Destinies to topple Zeus from his throne and replace him with his father, Saturn, who Zeus had overthrown. But barely was Saturn upon the throne and Zeus incarcerated in hell than Hermes stopped paying court to the Destinies, they noticed this and felt scorned, forswore Love and him, and promptly restored Zeus back to his throne.

Hermes nearly ended up locked in hell except that learning will always overcome all obstacles and rise to heaven and so Hermes, as the patron god of learning, eventually regained his place.

Yet, as a punishment, they added this,
That he and Poverty should always kiss;
And to this day is every scholar poor:

And explains why rich fools always seem to lord it over the Muses’ sons, well-educated wits, and the ‘lofty servile clown’ ‘keep learning down’. In other words, why deserving poets like Marlowe are always short of money and dependent on aristocratic fools.

It has the neatness of a fable, the folk tale origin of a proverb. Except that it is easy to overlook the fact that Marlowe just described the overthrow of the king of the gods by the keepers of the universe. He is, on other words, a poet whose imagination is always soaring off into the uttermost extremities of enormity.

Sestiad two (334 lines)

It’s a bit of an effort to click back to the original story, and find Hero playing hard to get, skipping off from Leander’s clutches, but turning round and eyeing him coyly, dropping her fan oops. She seems to make it home because the next thing we know Leander sends her a love letter, she replies telling him to come to her tower, and he arrives to find the front door wide open, and her room strewed with roses. He asked, she gave ‘and nothing was denied’. Marlowe is a very sexy writer:

Look how their hands, so were their hearts united,
And what he did, she willingly requited.
(Sweet are the kisses, the embracements sweet,
When like desires and like affections meet;)

Then she is overcome with guilt and shame and then fear that she has given herself too easily and he will tire of her, so she goes to him again, throwing herself on his bosom, making her body a sacrifice to her own anger at herself.

Leander, meanwhile, is a relatively naive and innocent lover and he is nagged by a suspicion that he hasn’t done enough or isn’t doing it right, and so he clasps her to him even more and suddenly finds his ardour rising again and the pleasing heat revived ‘Which taught him all that elder lovers know’. And yet she fled, keen to maintain ‘her maidenhead’ (in which case, all the shenanigans the poet has been describing must be merely foreplay).

Dawn comes, deliberately slowing her pace to let the two lovers take a long, drawn-out farewell. Hero gives Leander a myrtle to wear in his bonnet, a purple ribbon round his arm and the ring wherewith she had pledged her devotion to Venus. He is so liberally festooned with love’s tokens that Leander has barely got back to Abydos before everyone in both cities knows all about their love.

But Leander burns with love, flames for Hero’s absence. Leander’s father notices and pooh-poohs his love which only makes Leander burst out even more passionately like a wild horse that tamers try to restrain.

Sitting on a rock looking across the Hellespont to Hero’s tower, Leander’s love overcomes him, he tears off his clothes and leaps into the sea. But Poseidon god of the ocean, is convinced by his beauty that the legendary Ganymede has entered his element, and grasps Leander.

Leander strived; the waves about him wound,
And pull’d him to the bottom, where the ground
Was strewed with pearl, and in low coral groves
Sweet-singing mermaids sported with their loves
On heaps of heavy gold, and took great pleasure
To spurn in careless sort the shipwreck treasure;

It’s brilliantly vivid and colourful. Poseidon at first embraces Leander but our hero wriggles free of his grasp and, realising he is not Ganymede, Poseidon drops his lustful intent and turns to sporting with Leander. He fixes Helle’s bracelet on his arm so the sea can’t harm him and then frolics, as Leander strides through the water towards Hero, Poseidon swims between his strong arms and kisses him.

He watched his arms, and, as they open’d wide
At every stroke, betwixt them would he slide,
And steal a kiss, and then run out and dance,
And, as he turn’d, cast many a lustful glance,
And throw him gaudy toys to please his eye,
And dive into the water, and there pry
Upon his breast, his thighs, and every limb,
And up again, and close beside him swim,
And talk of love. Leander made reply,
‘You are deceiv’d; I am no woman, I.’

Hm, many people seem to be mistaking Leander for a woman. Is this sexy? Is it gay? Or is it more a kind of imaginative exuberance, a super-sexed hyperbole which transcends love or sex or gender, reaching for a kind of super-human vivacity and energy.

Poseidon starts telling a story about a shepherd who dotes on a boy so beautiful, who played with

a boy so lovely-fair and kind,
As for his love both earth and heaven pin’d;

(OK, maybe it is gay) but Leander is in a hurry to get across the strait and pulls ahead of Poseidon lamenting he is going so slow. Angered, Poseidon throws his mace at Leander but immediately regrets the decision and calls it back, where it hits his hand with such violence it draws blood. Leander sees it and is sorry, and Poseidon’s heart is softened by the lad’s kind heart.

Leander finally staggers ashore and runs to Hero’s tower. She hears knocking at the door and runs to it naked but seeing a rough dirty naked man in the doorway, screams and runs off to hide in her dark room. But here Leander follows her, spying her white skin in the gloom, she slips into her bed, Leander sits on it, exhausted, and speaks these lovely lines:

‘If not for love, yet, love, for pity-sake,
Me in thy bed and maiden bosom take;
At least vouchsafe these arms some little room,
Who, hoping to embrace thee, cheerly swoom:
This head was beat with many a churlish billow,
And therefore let it rest upon thy pillow.’

She wriggles down inside her bed, making a sort of tent of the sheets, while Leander whispers and entreats to her, and reaches in and begs and she is tempted but resists and is finally, at length, won like a town taken by storm,

Leander now, like Theban Hercules,
Enter’d the orchard of th’ Hesperides;
Whose fruit none rightly can describe, but he
That pulls or shakes it from the golden tree.

He appears to take her virginity:

she knew not how to frame her look,
Or speak to him, who in a moment took
That which so long, so charily she kept;

But I made the mistake of thinking they were having sex earlier, when it was only foreplay and here, again, what happens is obscure because next thing we know Hero slips out of the bed like a mermaid and stands and a kind of twilight breaks from her, and Leander beholds her naked for the first time. And at this moment Apollo’s golden harp sounds out music to the ocean and the morning star arises, driving night down into hell.

And it is there that the poem breaks off.

Famous quote

The poem contains one of Marlowe’s two most famous lines. Early in the first sestiad Hero is stooping down to a silver altar within the temple of Venus with her eyes closed. As she rises she opens her eyes and Cupid shoots a gold-tipped arrow through Leander’s heart, and Marlowe breaks off for a little digression on the nature of Love:

It lies not in our power to love or hate,
For will in us is over-rul’d by fate.
When two are stript long ere the course begin,
We wish that one should lose, the other win;
And one especially do we affect
Of two gold ingots, like in each respect:
The reason no man knows, let it suffice,
What we behold is censur’d by our eyes.
Where both deliberate, the love is slight:
Who ever lov’d, that lov’d not at first sight?

We know not what we do – or we have no idea why we like one thing instead of another, even when they’re indistinguishable like two identical gold ingots. We can’t explain why we love one thing instead of another just like it. It is fate.

Footnotes

Just some of the scores of Greek myths Marlowe refers to. Notice how many of them are about sex.

  • Before the advent of carpets, rooms in houses rich and poor, were strewn with rushes i.e. dried grasses.
  • Actaeon a fair youth, out hunting he accidentally saw the goddess Artemis bathing naked and as punishment she drove his hunting hounds into a wild frenzy so that they tore him to pieces.
  • Argus was a hundred-eyed monster sent by Hera to watch over beautiful maid Io and prevent Zeus sleeping with her, so Zeus sends Hermes to slay Io.
  • Cupid’s arrows According to Ovid, Cupid has two types of arrow, gold-tipped to kindle love and lead-tipped to extinguish it (Metamorphoses I, lines 470-471).
  • Ganymedea beautiful youth carried off by Zeus in the shape of an eagle and brought to heaven to be the cupbearer of the gods. The Latin for Ganymede is Catamitus which is the origin of the English word ‘catamite’ denoting a pubescent boy in a pederastic relationship with an older man, or the receiver of anal intercourse.
  • Ixion was the treacherous king of Thessaly who murdered his father-in-law. Zeus took pity on him and brought him to Olympus where Ixion promptly repaid his kindness by trying to seduce Hera. Learning about this, Zeus created a fake model of Hera out of clouds and sent it to Ixion. The fruit of their union was the race of centaurs. Ixion was punished for his hubris by being bound to a wheel perpetually turning in hell.
  • Pelops was killed by his father Tantalus, cut up, cooked, and served at a dinner of the gods. Only Demeter actually ate anything, though, unknowingly eating Pelops’ shoulder. When Hermes was subsequently tasked with reconstituting Pelops, he gave him a shoulder made of ivory. The story is told in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, VI, l.403-11.
  • Phaëthon was a son of Apollo, the sun god. He undertook to drive the chariot of the sun but lost control of the horses and was destroyed by Zeus to prevent him setting fire to the world (Metamorphoses II, 30)
  • Proteus the sea god, a byword for continual continual change.
  • Salmacis was a nymph who loved the fair youth Hermaphroditus who ignored her. But she embraced him and begged the gods that they never be parted, the gods granted her wish and transformed them into one being with the attributes of a man and a woman (Metamorphoses, IV, 285ff)
  • Tantalus was King of Lydia and a son of Zeus. He stole nectar from the gods to give to men and was consigned to hell where he suffered permanent thirst and hunger with goblets of water and plates full of rich food just out of reach.

Sources

An ancient work, The Double Heroides, is attributed to Ovid and, among other fictional letters, it contains an exchange of verse letters between Hero and Leander. In that text Leander has been unable to swim across to Hero in her tower because of bad weather and her summons to him to make the effort will prove fatal to her lover.

But research has shown that most of the details in Hero and Leander are taken from the much later 340 line-poem by the 6th century Byzantine poet Musaeus, who is actually namechecked in Marlowe’s poem (although Marlowe makes the error, common in his time, of mistakenly thinking Musaeus was a contemporary of Homer).


Related links

Marlowe’s works

Bartholomew Fair by Ben Jonson (1614)

Bartholomew Fair is a very long comic play set in London’s huge and sprawling Bartholomew Fair. The fair had been held every year on 24 August since the 12th century in the precincts of the Priory at West Smithfield, outside the Aldersgate, and by Jonson’s day had grown into a massive, teeming festival of entertainment, sideshows and crime.

Reflecting the size and complexity of its subject matter, Bartholomew Fair is a very decentralised play. There is no hero or central authority figure, although a couple of the more monstrous caricatures come to dominate the narrative. Instead there are some 33 speaking parts which sprawl across an unusually long text.

The characters can be divided into two categories: the regular fair stallholders who remain their colourful selves throughout the play, such as fat Ursla, keeper of the roast pig stall, and Edgworth the cutpurse; and the visitors to the fair, a more disparate crew who can be sub-divided into three groups:

  1. A citizen family made up of John Littlewit – immensely proud of his own cleverness and of his beautiful wife Win-the-fight, her mother Dame Purecraft, and Purecraft’s spiritual father, the vehement Puritan, Zeal-of-the-land Busy. Win is pregnant, so one motive for the family going to the fair is to buy some of the roast pig it was famous for and she is yearning for; but another is so Littlewit can see the puppet show he has written.
  2. Another family party led by Bartholomew Cokes, a legendarily simple-minded idiot, his tiny angry tutor Humphrey Wasp (who Cokes winds up by referring to throughout as ‘Numps’), his fiancee Grace Wellborn (who is reluctant to marry Cokes) and Cokes’s married sister, Mistress Overdo.
  3. A pair of witty gallants – Winwife who is a suitor for the hand of Dame Purecraft, and Quarlous (who at one point accuses his friend of ‘widow-hunting’). These two only go to the fair once they’ve learned the Cokes family are going, because they reckon the latter will behave so stupidly as to be good entertainment.

Omitted from this list is Justice Overdo. One of the main themes of this complex play is the legal situation of wards of court. Through the Court of Wards, Justice Overdo has ‘bought’ Grace Wellborn, i.e. become her guardian, expressly in order to marry her – and her fortune – off to his idiot brother-in-law Cokes. One of the complex ironies of the play is that Justice Overdo ploughs through the fair seeking out relatively minor misdemeanours while all the time blind to the gross moral (albeit legal) crime which he was committing (the issues is explained in detail on page 98 of the New Mermaid edition).

Similarly short-sighted and troublesome is the butt of the other Big Theme of the play, which is Puritanism. For over forty years, ever since the earliest plays began to appear on Elizabethan stages in the 1570s, Puritan preachers and writers had been violently denouncing plays and, by implication, most forms of imaginative writing. They accused them of dramatising and thus glamorising all manner of crimes, including murder and adultery, stirring up bawdry at every point, and also as providing a cockpit for gallants and fine ladies and city merchants and prostitutes and petty criminals to meet and indulge their basest passions.

When the play was presented to James I in 1614 Jonson wrote a short verse prologue specifically addressing the king and the trouble he had with non-conformists and Puritans – ‘the zealous noise of your land’s faction’ and their ‘petulant ways’ – is mentioned as early as line 3 and makes up most of the content:

Your Majesty is welcome to a Fair;
Such place, such men, such language, and such ware
You must expect: with these, the zealous noise
Of your land’s faction, scandalised at toys,
As babies, hobby-horses, puppet-plays,
And such-like rage, whereof the petulant ways
Yourself have known, and have been vext with long.

So an overbearing city official (Overdo) and an overbearing humbug (Busy) are the two main, serious, satirical butts of the play – but there are plenty of other victims, large and small.

Cast

Visitors to the fair

John Littlewit, a Proctor
Solomon, Littlewit’s man
Zeal-of-the-land Busy, suitor to Dame Purecraft, a Banbury Man
Winwife, his rival for Dame Purecraft, a Gentleman
Tom Quarlous, companion to Winwife, a gamester
Bartholomew Cokes, an Esquire of Harrow
Humphrey Wasp, his tutor
Adam Overdo, a Justice of Peace

Win-the-fight Littlewit
Dame Purecraft, her mother, and a widow
Mistress Overdo
Grace Wellborn, Ward to Justice Overdo

Fair people

Ezechiel Edgworth, a cutpurse
Nightingale, a Ballad-singer, who Edgworth slips the purses after he’s cut them
Mooncalf, dim and slow tapster to Ursula
Dan Jordan Knockem, a horse-courser, and a ranger of Turnbull – who talks continually about ‘vapours’
Lanthorn Leatherhead, a hobby-horse seller (toyman)
Valentine Cutting, a roarer or bully
Captain Whit, a bawd with a thick Irish accent
Trouble-all, a madman
Bristle, Haggis } Watchmen
Pocher, a Beadle
Filcher, Sharkwell } door-keepers to the puppet-show
Northern, a Clothier (a Northern Man)
Puppy, a wrestler (a Western Man)

Joan Trash, a gingerbread-woman, always bickering with Leatherhead the toy-man
Ursula, an immensely fat pig-woman
Ramping Alice, a prostitute

Costard-monger, Mousetrap-man, Corn-cutter, Watch, Porters, Puppets, Passengers, Mob, Boys, Etc.

The plot

Before it even starts, there is an unusual prologue in that the first person on-stage is a young stage-sweeper who gives a lengthy moan about how the play they’re about to see is nothing like Bartholomew Fair, he (the sweeper) knows it much better and gave the playwright many useful suggestions which he mocked and ignored.

The stage sweeper is then shooed offstage by two new arrivals, a book holder and scrivener, the former announcing he has come to make a deal with the audience. He gets the scrivener to read out a mock legal contract between author of the new play and the audience, which goes into some detail about how they are only allowed to criticise the play according to the entrance fee they’ve paid, and if one man has treated others audience members he can criticise to the extent of his payment but the others must be silent, and other humorous joshing about audiences and their criticisms. He says the play isn’t going to hearken back to former glories, nor is it going to feature servant-monsters from a Tale or Tempest (usually taken as a reference to Shakespeare’s recent plays The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest). He also goes out of his way to tell the audience to beware of spies and ‘politic pick-locks’ who would interpret this or that character as a libel on the famous and powerful. Such people must be exposed and mocked. All is for entertainment.

Act 1

The entire first act is set in Littlewit’s house, as we meet the man himself, in a good mood and fussing over his wife Win, lovely Win, la Win what a lovely day etc. Then one by one other characters are introduced: Winwife who, it is explained, is a suitor for Win’s mother, Dame Purecraft. Quarlous, who also fancies the Dame. To both Littlewit explains 2 things, 1. that Dame Purecraft has taken to visiting Bedlam to see the mad people, so anyone wooing her would do well to act a bit crazy and 2. just a few days ago her superior in the Puritan religion, Zeal-of-the-land Busy has come from Banbury to stay with them.

The act ends with Littlewit persuading his wife, Win, that she wants to go to the fair to eat pork at the famous pig shop – Littlewit also telling his wife that he has written a play for the puppets that he is itching to see performed.

Key characters

It is a vast play, 180 pages of solid prose whereas others in the New Mermaid hover around 100 to 120 pages, half of that in verse. In other words, it’s just packed with words and verbiage. Some of the characters are given whole pages of dense prose without paragraph breaks to explain their character and purposes.

Quarlous and Winwife play the role of The Observers, a pair of smart alec gentry who are cleverer than all around them. Having observed Littlewit and his compliant wife in the latter’s house – and then the arrival of Coke, the gangling, 19-year-old idiot heir – they declare to each other that following these dimwits to the fair will amount to excellent sport. And so they saunter through the rest of the play, sardonically observing the follies of the rest of the cast, pretending to sympathise while egging them on.

Thus they spend several pages outdoing each other with insults and abuse of Ursla, the pig woman, telling her how fat she is, while she replies with rich Bartholomew insults, until she is so infuriated she goes into her stall and emerges with a red hot scalding-pan, and gets into a fight with the two cocky young men, which she loses and in falling over manages to badly burn her leg so that half a dozen of the fair people have to carry her into her stall (II, v).

Master Overdo dresses up as a madman in order to infiltrate the world of the lowlife stallholders and is amusingly over-shocked by even the slightest scams and adulterations of food or drink or tobacco which he overhears, and has the stage to himself at quite a few early points to make mock heroic speeches about his bravery in going undercover and what he has to put up with in the performance of his duty – pomposity which is clearly intended to be mocked. Specially after he gets into dispute with Edgworth the cutpurse and ends up getting beaten up.

‘It is a comfort to a good conscience to be followed with a good fame in his sufferings. The world will have a pretty taste by this, how I can bear adversity; and it will beget a kind of reverence towards me hereafter, even from mine enemies, when they shall see, I carry my calamity nobly, and that it doth neither break me, nor bend me.’

Zeal of the Land Busy is a conspicuous hypocrite, depicted as endlessly stuffing his face (‘he eats with his eyes as well as his teeth’) while making long speeches about the sins of the flesh. He rails so loudly against Leatherhead’s toy stall and upsets Joan Trash’s basket of gingerbread men all over the floor, so that Leatherhead calls officers who, seeing all this, arrest Busy and take him off to the stocks.

Act 4

In a separate storyline Overdo (in his disguise) is placed in the stocks and learns that a man who he convicted the year before lost his place at the fair and his mind, and Overdo is chastened, and listening to other stories it dawns on him that compassion is suitable for a judge (IV, i).

After this chastening experience they take him out the stocks just as new officers rock up with Zeal-of-the-land who they had intended to put in the stocks but now the ravings of the madman Trouble-All has persuaded to take Busy in front of Justice Overdo instead.

Coke wanders round the fair being an imbecile. He has two purses. When the one containing only a little silver is pick-pocketed he makes a great show of waving around the other one and telling everyone it is full of gold, interspersed with joining in a long ballad about cutpurses sung by Nightingale, in the middle of which Edgworth does indeed pick Coke’s pocket, cutting the strings which attach his purse to his hose, and slipping it to Nightingale when no-one is looking (III, 5).

Except that Quarlous and Winwife are watching and see everything. They approach Nightingale and Edgworth, tell them they saw everything but won’t tell the officers, so long as the two crooks carry out some scams on simple-minded Cokes. Thus in a later scene they arrange for a pear-seller to stumble and drop his pears at Cokes’s feet. So naive is Cokes that he hands his hat, cloak and sword to a kind bystander as he stoops down to collect all the pears – and the bystander – Edgworth – promptly runs off with Cokes’s stuff – who stands up again, looks around, then starts shouting ‘Thief thief!’

Quarlous and Winwife – Quarlous is really the ringleader – commission Edgworth and Nightingale to steal from Wasp the black box containing the warrant for Coke’s marriage to the (very reluctant) Grace Wellborn III, v).

Meanwhile, in their flaneuring round the fair stirring up trouble, Quarlous and Winwife have been accompanied a lot of the time by Grace Wellborn, the poor young woman engaged to Cokes. In Act 4 she explains the situation. Her parents died leaving her a ward of court. Justice Overdo ‘bought’ her from the court and has now engaged her to his idiot brother-in-law, Cokes. Grace has now choice. If she refuses the marriage she will have to herself pay Overdo the value of the estate which he bought to buy her.

This outrageous story lights a spark of love in both men’s hearts and before we know what’s happening, Act 4 scene iii opens with the two men in a swordfight over Grace’s favours She begs them to desist. They say she must choose one of them. She says that’s ridiculous, she only met them a few hours ago. Instead she suggests they write in some writing tablets a name apiece, and then ask the first person to come past to choose one. They agree, write their names and the next person to appear is the madman, Trouble-All, whose every sentence is asking whether people have Justice Overdo’s warrant for their behaviour. He has difficulty understanding the task then ticks one of the two names more or less at random.

Now, Grace made the two suitors promise she wouldn’t show them which name was chosen till she was safely home, but in any case at this moment Edgworth rolls up to tell the pair of gallants that Wasp has fallen in with a droll set of company and that, if they come to watch, they enjoy his discomfiture and watch the box being foisted off him.

Quarlous watches half a dozen of the fair lowlifes playing a stupid game of ‘vapours’ where each person just has to contradict the speaker before him. Edgworth makes sure a fight breaks out between testy little Wasp and the Irishman, Captain Whit, and in the confusion steals the marriage licence (intended for Cokes and Grace) out of Wasp’s black box. Officers arrive to arrest Wasp (their role seems to be to punish everyone who is uppity and overbearing) and meanwhile, Mistress Overdo has been left without her man in the company of these rowdy gamesters and has been trying to calm them and stop them fighting.

Now she asks Whit if he can arrange for her to go for a pee somewhere. Just then fat Ursla enters and Whit asks her if Mistress O can use the ‘jordan’ in her booth to which she points out it is already being used by Win, Littlewit’s wife who we saw, in an earlier scene, saying she needed a leak. Knockem comes upon Whit in a corner with Mistress Overdo trying to help her and the conversation takes a bawdy turn as the rough fairmen make rude innuendos to Mistress Overdo which – I think – she quite enjoys.

Anyway, as Mistress Overdo goes into Ursla’s booth or tent, Littlewit and Win emerge – her presumably relieved to have had a pee – and Littlewit announces he is off to see the puppet show that he wrote and off he goes.

The point is – this leaves Win by herself just by Ursla’s booth and Mistress Overdo within it and sets Ursla thinking – the various rascals and cutpurses she knows will be tired and randy by the end of the fair and she has no ‘plover or quail’ (meaning wenches, meaning whores) ready for their entertainment. And here are two posh and rather silly women abandoned, Win and Mistress O. Ursla suggests to Kockem that they ‘work on’ the two women, with a view to making them compliant with the wishes of the whore customers they know will be arriving soon.

Kockem and Whit immediately set about persuading dim Win that a married woman’s lot is a terrible thing and she would be much better if she became a ‘lady’, wore fine clothes bought for her by her countless male lovers. Win is immediately dazzled, but the plan is knocked awry because, inside Ursla’s tent, Mistress Overdo encountered a real whore / punk, Alice of Turnbull, Ramping Alice, who has started beating and belabouring her. The men – Whit and Knockem – quickly dispatch Alice – after some choice insults have flown about – and resume seducing Win with visions of fine clothes and a coach of her own.

Enter Edgworth who has given the marriage licence he stole out of Wasp’s black box to Quarlous. Edgworth offers Quarlous the women in Ursla’s booth, fine green women he promises, but Quarlous scorns such an offer and warns Edgworth he saw him cut a purse so holds the threat of the hangman over him.

Edgworth exits and enter the watchman, Haggis, bearing Wasp to the stocks which they lock him in. (If you remember Wasp got into a fight with a bunch of roughs and Mistress Overdo shouted for the watch to come and restore peace, and because testy old Wasp wouldn’t stop shouting ‘A turd i’ your teeth’ at everybody, they arrested him.) Quarlous saunters by and enjoys teasing Wasp in the stocks.

As he does so the other officers bring back Zeal-of-the-land Busy and Justice Overdo still in disguise. They lament that they can’t find Justice Overdo anywhere and his assistants don’t know where he is so, in the absence of his authority, they’ll clap these two troublemakers min the stocks and proceed to do so – so for a while Wasp, Overdo and Busy exchange moans.

Trouble-All enters. Now Quarlous has been looking for him ever since he indicated in Grace Wellborn’s writing tablets which man should marry her to ask him which he chose – but the officers now tease Trouble-All and call him a madman so Quarlous is taken aback to learn that the man who has made the decision of whether he will marry Grace or not is insane. By a ruse Wasp escapes from the stocks and the officers, when they return, argue about whether they were locked properly, undo them with a view to redoing them tighter but at that moment Trouble-All enters and the mocking escalates into a fight, during which Overdo and Busy take advantage to escape. When they stop fighting the officers look round and are horrified that their prisoners have escaped.

During this confusion, improbably enough, Dame Purecraft, the widowed Puritan falls in love with Trouble-All because, like many stage madmen, he speaks clearly and nobly (if obsessively and repetitively). While Dame Purecraft declares her love for Quarlous-as-Trouble-All, Quarlous has dressed like this in order to ask Grace to see the chapbook and see which name ‘he’ ticked. Turns out it wasn’t him, it was Winwife. The secret is out.

So: Grace admits it to Winwife who is over the moon and they exit. Quarlous is sunk in dejection as Dame Purecraft tells him she loves him – at which he rounds on her with a snarling abuse of all Puritans. To which she reveals that she is indeed a hypocrite and gives a long list of the deceptions and cons she has been carrying out under cover of being a deacon for the past seven years, not least mulcting gifts from all the suitors she’s led on – and goes on to indict Zeal-of-the-land as ‘the capital knave of the land’ and listing his crimes and deceits – presumably to the enthusiastic applause of the audience.

Quarlous turns to the audience and ponders. Well, he’s definitely lost Grace and has no other prospects in sight. Dame P has just said she’s worth some £6,000. Well… why not marry her, he has Cokes’s marriage licence in his pocket, all he has to do is scratch out the name, marry the widow and come into a fortune and a juicy wife. Yes. He’ll do it.

At this point Justice Overdo-in-disguise approaches Quarlous, thinking he is Trouble-All who he has so much offended, and reveals his true identity and offers to do anything to make reparations, offers him a blank warrant signed and sealed by him. Quarlous jumps at the opportunity, Overdo gives him such a warrant, and Quarlous is left reflecting how powerful this disguise of insanity can be.

Act 5

Act five centres around the puppet theatre and the play Littlewit has written for it. But of course various other plotlines come to a climax.

Enter Leatherhead (who for the rest of the play takes the alias Lantern) and Filcher and Sharkwell, who are going to stage the puppet theatre. Leatherhead reflects that although Biblical subjects are topical (like the fall or Nineveh or Sodom and Gomorrah) domestic subjects like the Gunpowder Plot are best.

Enter a) Overdo in a new disguise, that of a porter, still bent on his misguided mission to seek out ‘enormity’ before, as he plans, bursting forth in all his magnificence to rain down justice on his people. At least that’s how he sees himself; b) Quarlous, who has disguised himself as Trouble-All the madman.

The playmen and their booth: enter Cokes followed, as he now is everywhere, by a flock of children who’ve realised he’s an idiot, he reads out loud the playbill for the benefit of the audience i.e. it is going to be a parody of Marlowe’s heroic poem, Hero and Leander. Enter Lovewit who one of the boothmen owners won’t let enter though he protests he is the author of the damn play!

Littlewit greets Cokes and is surprised to see him without a cloak or hat – Cokes laments how he has lost everything at the fair – both his purses, his clothes and all his friends. Like an idiot, Cokes is excited about the play and asks if he can meet the actors or visit the changing room. Amused, Lantern explains that both are a little small.

This conversation takes in references to contemporary actors, including Richard Burbage and Nathan Fields, before Lantern explains that they commissioned Littlewit to adapt Hero and Leander for modern times and modern audiences. Indeed, we learn that the Hellespont has been translated into the River Thames, Leander is a dyer’s son from Puddle Wharf, and Hero a wench of Bankside, who is rowed one morning over to Old Fish Street and Leander, spying her alighting at Trig Stairs (these are all real locations in Jacobean London) falls in love with her. Or with her white legs. It is a crude, funny burlesque of the Marlowe poem.

Other character arrive for the play: Overdo still in disguise as a porter; Winwife now attached to Grace (they both hear Cokes being very dismissive of Grace who he’s never liked); and the two posh women who have been talked into becoming whores, silly Win and pompous Mistress Overdo, both wearing masks, swanking in fine clothes and enjoying having chairs pulled out for them, men dancing attendance; and Wasp – when Cokes tells Wasp he knows he’s been in the stocks, Wasp laments that his authority over his pupils is now at an end. (To be honest this doesn’t make much impact, because Wasp never seems to have had any influence at all over the idiot Cokes.)

They settle down to watch the play in bad rhymed verse as the puppets play the parts of Hero the fishmonger’s daughter, and Leander the dyer’s son. Cokes keeps interrupting when he doesn’t understand bits, or to praise bits he does understand.

This is by far the funniest part of the play, not least because it is the most self-contained and comprehensible. The reader easily understands that the puppet play is an outrageous burlesque of two classical stories, the tragic love affair and Hero and Leander and the legendary friendship of Pythias and Damon. In Littlewit/Jonson’s hands these become raucous fishwives and drunks. The famous friends fall out as they compete to hurl insults at the lovers which descends into a fight. And a little later puppet Damon and Pythias comes across puppet Hero and Leander snogging, start insulting her as a whore, she turns, bends, flips up her skirts and says they can kiss her whore arse, at which they kick her arse, and all the puppets descend into fighting again. All this while Cokes, like an idiot, repeats various parts of the bad verse, telling everyone else how much he admires it, and then cheering when the puppets start fighting. It’s also funny the way the puppetmaster, Leatherhead/Lantern, whispers asides to Cokes, about the onstage action, as if the puppets are real people.

So as a scene it is by far the most coherent and comprehensible and the comedy is as funny now as it was 400 years ago.

All this argy-bargy wakes up the puppet ghost of Dionysius but he’s barely delivered a speech before into the whole scene bursts Zeal-of-the-land Busy, fired up with rage and fury against the play and against the fair in general. But his wrath against the puppetmaster, Leatherhead, is neatly diverted against the puppets themselves, and Busy finds himself engaged in a Public Debate About Morality with a puppet – much to the derision of the onlookers.

The debate reaches a climax when Busy accuses the puppets of what Puritans had been accusing the theatre and actors for 40 years or more, namely that theatre was an unnatural abomination for encouraging men to dress up as women and women to dress up as men. The puppet Dionysius gleefully refutes Busy by lifting up his skirts and revealing that – he has no sex at all!

Deflated, Busy acknowledges defeat and sits down.

But this is the moment Justice Overdo chooses to throw off his disguise and carry out his Grand Promise to discover the ‘enormities’ of the fair and punish them all.

OVERDO: Now, to my enormities: look upon me, O London! and see me, O Smithfield! the example of justice, and Mirrour of Magistrates; the true top of formality, and scourge of enormity. Hearken unto my labours, and but observe my discoveries; and compare Hercules with me, if thou dar’st, of old; or Columbus, Magellan, or our countryman Drake, of later times. Stand forth, you weeds of enormity, and spread.

Immediately all the shady characters – Knockem, Whit – start sneaking away. But the real point is that, instead of dispensing justice and creating order, Overdo’s presence raises confusion to new heights. Ursla comes running in chasing the real Trouble-All, who has stolen her pan because, as Ursla explains, some nasty man stripped Trouble-All and borrowed all his clothes. Overdo turns to the man he thought was Trouble-All, who is in fact Quarlous and now admits it. Overdo orders the two masked women in the audience to unmask and they are revealed as Win – so Littlewit is appalled to see his wife dressed up as a whore – and Mistress Overdo – and the Justice is dumbstruck to see his wife dolled up like a trollop. Worse, she is immediately sick into a basin having drunk to excess (explains how the rogues got her to dress that way in the first place).

While Overdo is struck dumb, Quarlous – the witty cynical gallant who has in many ways been a chorus and instigator of scams – now steps forward and takes the Justice’s function, pointing out the true state of affairs.

  • The man Overdo took a liking to early on in the fair and has been protecting throughout is none other than Edgworth the cutpurse, who stole both Cokes’s purses and helped stir up the fighting which got Overdo and Wasp landed in the stocks.
  • Grace Wellborn, who Overdo intended to marry off to Cokes, has now become ward to Quarlous, who filled in the blank seal and signature he gave him to this effect.
  • Quarlous hands Grace over to Winwife, who won her in the little game where she wrote their names down and got the first passerby (who happened to be Trouble-All) to choose one. But since Quarlous is now Grace’s guardian, Winwife must pay him the value of her estate in order to free her for marriage. (This is a little difficult to follow, but it was the law of the land at the time.)
  • Quarlous hands Trouble-All back his cloak and gown and thanks him for the loan.
  • Then turns to his wife, Dame Purecraft, whom he has married in the guide of the madman Trouble-All, and who he now promises he can be mad whenever he pleases.
  • And then points to Wasp and facetiously thanks him for the marriage licence (which Quarlous got to steal out of Wasp’s black box) which he has used to marry the widow.

So Zeal-of-the-land Busy has been publicly humiliated and revealed as a hypocrite; Justice Overdo revealed as a man puffed up with own self-importance who doesn’t have a clue what’s going on, and his wife was on the verge of becoming a drunken whore; Wasp has lost all authority over his pupil; Littlewit has realised his wife was also easily led to become a fairground bawd; Winwife did win a wife, but only by default, not out of his own abilities.

And Quarlous is the clear winner and impresario of the entire play. As such he reprimands the justice:

QUARLOUS: Remember you are but Adam, flesh and blood! you have your frailty

And then goes on to perform the traditional role of inviting everyone to an end-of-comedy celebration feast at Overdo’s house:

QUARLOUS: Forget your other name of Overdo, and invite us all to supper. There you and I will compare our discoveries; and drown the memory of all enormity in your biggest bowl at home.

And then the Epilogue steps forward to address the king and asked if he was pleased. Presumably he was, as Jonson wasn’t thrown into prison! In fact by this stage, Jonson was well into his second career as a writer of masques for the royal court, and was in the highest favour.

Thoughts

Long Bartholomew Fair is so epically long – twice as long as a play like The Shoemaker’s Holiday – and consists of walls of solid prose unrelieved by passages of verse like all the other Jacobean comedies I’ve read – that I was just relieved to get to the end of it.

Numerous characters Both Volpone and The Alchemist have a much smaller cast of characters, much more focused plots and move much faster. There are so many characters in Bartholomew Fair that I found it difficult to distinguish many of the minor ones, especially the rogues who only appear in a few scenes, like Puppy and Cutting and Northern and Haggis and Filcher and Sharkwell.

Difficult prose This is compounded by the fact that 17th century prose is difficult to read. It’s unusual to get even a single sentence that doesn’t contain at least one obscure word or expression, or isn’t part of an elaborate metaphor which is incomprehensible without a good footnote. So you are continually stopping to read the notes and understand what they’re saying.

Different motivations And at a level just above the verbal, it’s often difficult to understand what the characters are trying to say or do. Even when you’ve understood every word in a speech it doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve understood why the character said it or what they were driving at. You are constantly rubbed up against the fact that, on a verbal and minor psychological level, the people of 400 years ago had different moment by moment concerns, and expressed them in language, metaphors and elaborate conceits, which are hard to grasp.

Disease Despite these obstacles, several things do come over loud and clear. The first is how utterly unlike our times the Jacobean era was in two obvious respects: the brutality of its punishments and the virulence of disease. There was no medicine worth the name and not only the recurring pandemics of plague, but smallpox, typhoid, syphilis and a host of other diseases killed or maimed a large percentage of the population and there was nothing the so-called doctors or anyone else could do about it.

Brutality As to the punishments, it is hair-raising the way even minor offences led to hanging, and the play refers throughout to the ritual whereby the condemned were taken in carts from the various London prisons to Tyburn to be hanged amid much popular celebration. But even worse in its way was the commonness with which whipping and scourging was applied. Ramping Alice the prostitute was whipped and scourged simply for being a prostitute.

Therefore the people in this time, as for centuries before and for some time to come, lived between two dire threats, the threat of catching, suffering horribly and dying from appalling diseases – and the threat of infringing one of any number of man-made laws and being subjected to capital punishment or extremely violent punishments.

Sex The next most obvious aspect is the absolute drenching of the play in sex and sexual innuendo. As with most comedies there’s a marriage plot (who will marry Grace Wellborn?) surrounded by seemingly endless jokes about marriage and adultery, endless references to the cuckold’s horns which arise when a man’s wife is unfaithful to him. But it’s far deeper than that, not a page of the text, not a minute of the play goes by without someone making a comment which has a sexual implication or double meaning. In these plays sex is everywhere, all the time.

Theatrical convention Now you could take this at face value and say something like, the Elizabethans and Jacobeans lived in a society which was massively less sexually repressed than our own, in which everyone all the time is making sexual comments and innuendo. Except that, as the editor of the Mermaid edition of The Shoemaker’s Holiday, D.J. Palmer, emphasises, plays like this should not be taken as documentary evidence of 1600s London life – far from it. They are entertainments and follow the conventions of entertainment, many of which have stayed the same from Chaucer to TV sitcoms like ‘Allo ‘Allo, Open All Hours or Last of the Summer Wine.

For centuries – in fact for millennia, because the Greeks and Romans did it, too – playwrights have used bawdiness and double entendre to make people laugh and have flooded the stage with sexual innuendo and byplay precisely because it was and is so lacking in everyday life. Characters on stage are licensed to be outrageously forward and suggestive (just as they are licensed to fall into despair and kill themselves or rage and storm and murder people) precisely as an outlet for feelings and impulses which most people, most of the time, in most societies we have records of, have been forced to repress and contain.

Overdo As to the obvious themes of the play, these are embodied in arguably the two key figures are Justice Overdo and Zeal-of-the-Land Busy. The justice is probably the more important one and his storyline concerns the way he adopts a disguise to seek out ‘enormity’, but this is problematic. Arguably going in disguise means abdicating the responsibility he has to be there in person – we see the watchmen at a loss what to do without his authority – and has a secondary indictment in that the ‘enormities’ he thinks he discovers are trivial. The main point of his storyline though, is seeing close up the impact a casual judgement of his against Trouble-All had on the poor man, namely to drive him mad.

Busy Zeal-of-the-Land Busy has less stage time than Overdo but is a more vivid character, not least because the Puritan rhetoric he uses is so very distinctive and, in its way, attractive. Here he is warning his little flock about the perils of the fair:

BUSY: The place is Smithfield, or the field of smiths, the grove of hobby-horses and trinkets, the wares are the wares of devils, and the whole Fair is the shop of Satan: they are hooks and baits, very baits, that are hung out on every side, to catch you, and to hold you, as it were, by the gills, and by the nostrils, as the fisher doth; therefore you must not look nor turn toward them.—The heathen man could stop his ears with wax against the harlot of the sea; do you the like with your fingers against the bells of the beast.

He is taken down twice, once when the widow, Dame Purecraft, reveals to Quarlous and the audience all the scams she and he have been foisting on their ‘brethren’ for seven years, and then when he loses his Public Debate to a puppet.

Conclusion

Complicated and obscure as some of it is, the broad plotlines are still totally accessible and Bartholomew Fair is not only sometimes very funny but turns into a thought-provoking meditation on social and cultural power which is still relevant to our times.


Social history

  • The Hope theatre where the play was performed, was also used for bear-baiting. On bear days the stage was taken down to allow packs of dogs to try and maul bears to death while the bears defended themselves and spectators gambled on the outcome.
  • King James opened a public lottery in 1612 to raise funds for the colonisation of Virginia (a colony often mentioned in these plays). James Fort, Virginia, had been founded in 1607, and would be renamed Jamestown.
  • It was a popular stereotype that Dutchmen consumed excessive amounts of butter.
  • Bridewell prison specialised in sexual offenders. The sex worker Ramping Alice was recently an inmate where she was flogged and scourged i.e. cut with the scourge.
  • A waistcoat, when worn without a gown over it, was the sign of prostitutes, who were sometimes known as ‘waistcoateers’.
  • Words for sex worker: prostitute, whore, bawd, jade, punk, waistcoateer, green woman,
  • Tailors were supposed to be a) bawdy, presumably because they saw their clients in states of undress b) greedy, having enormous appetites.
  • Colliers, black from their trade, were thought to be a) notorious cheats b) associated with hell.
  • The trade of working with feathers to make and sell fans and puffs and perukes was associated with Puritans, especially in the Blackfriars area (location of the Blackfriars theatre and also where Jonson lived). The contradiction between their vehement raging against worldly vanity, and the fact they made a handsome profit out of catering to that vanity, did not escape the Puritans’ critics.

Related links

Jacobean comedies

Cavalier poetry

17th century history

Restoration comedies

The Roaring Girl, or Moll Cutpurse by Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker (1611)

‘Perhaps for my mad going some reprove me:
I please myself and care not else who loves me.’
(Moll Cutpurse, the Roaring Girl)

According to Elizabeth Cook, editor of the New Mermaid edition of The Roaring Girl, Middleton was for centuries dismissed as just another member of the flock of playwrights who swarmed in London between about 1590 and 1630 and who collectively produced over 600 plays of all styles, shapes and sizes.

It was T.S. Eliot’s 1927 essay about Middleton which made a solid claim for him being second only to Shakespeare among the playwrights of the era, not least because he wrote enduring plays in both the major genres, of tragedy (The Changeling and Women Beware Women) and comedy (The Roaring Girl and A Chaste Maid in Cheapside), and which began the 20th century rise of his reputation.

The Roaring Girl stands slightly to one side of Middleton’s comedies, firstly because it was a collaboration (with Thomas Dekker). (It is fascinating to learn that the majority of Elizabethan and Jacobean plays were collaborations, because of the furious demand of theatres which often only staged new plays for a week or two before requiring yet more audience fodder.)

It is also slightly unusual because it is based on contemporary fact, namely the life of Mary Frith, a notorious character of the time, widely known as ‘Moll Cutpurse’, who had gained a reputation for wearing men’s clothes and behaving like a young tough. Contemporary accounts describe her as ‘wearing men’s clothes, appearing on the stage, drinking, swearing, making “immodest and lascivious speeches,” prostitution, pick-pocketing, forgery, and highway robbery’. Frith inspired numerous contemporary accounts, including a chapbook written by John Day titled The Mad Pranks of Merry Moll of the Bankside (1610) and appearing in Nathaniel Field’s Amends for Ladies (1611).

Cast

Moll, the Roaring Girl

The posh men

Sir Alexander Wengrave
Young Sebastian Wengrave, his son – the ‘hero’
Neatfoot, his servant
Gull, his page
Ralph Trapdoor, his spy
Sir Adam Appleton
Sir Davy Dapper
Jack Dapper, spendthrift son to Sir Davy
Sir Guy Fitzallard
(Mary Fitzallard, his daughter, in love with Sebastian Wengrave – the ‘heroine’)
Sir Beauteous Ganymede
Goshawk, a deceiving gallant
Laxton, another deceiving gallant
Greenwit, assistant to Laxton in some scams

Curtilax, a Sergeant
Hanger, his Yeoman (both commissioned by Sir Davy Dapper to arrest his spendthrift son, Jack)

City merchants and their wives

Tiltyard, a Feather-seller
Mistress Tiltyard
Openwork, a Sempster
Mistress Rosamond Openwork – Goshawk tries to seduce her
Hippocrates Gallipot, an Apothecary
Mistress Prudence Gallipot – Laxton tries to seduce her

Act I

Oddly, Moll, the start of the play, doesn’t appear for the entire first act. Maybe one aim was to make her eventual arrival onstage that much more ‘dramatic’. Instead both scenes of act one are set in Sir Alexander Wengrave’s grand house where he is grandly entertaining guests.

Scene 1 is set in the chambers of his son, Sebastian, into which is shown a young woman dressed as a disguise. This is quickly revealed to be Mary Fitzallard who Sebastian is in love with. Why, she asks, has he been ignoring her? Because, he explains, his father is grand and ambitious and is demanding a huge dowry from her parents. But Sebastian has a plan which he now explains: he has not seen Mary for a while because he is pretending to be in love with the notorious man-dressing, roaring girl, Moll Cutpurse. His father will be so worried about that match that he will see marriage to Mary as the preferable alternative.

Scene 2 introduces us to Sebastian’s father, Sir Alexander, who is grandly hosting a party of posh friends who he proceeds to share his sadness that his son is driving him to an early grave by being in love with a ‘man-woman’, Moll Cutpurse. Father and son have a flaring row in front of everything and Sebastian stomps out and the guests leave. At which point a new servant presents himself, one Ralph Trapdoor who has been recommended to Sir Alexander. This is handy. Sir Alexander orders Trapdoor, and to find Moll, inveigle himself into her good books and find some way to destroy her.

Act II

Scene 1: The three shops The gallants who had been Sir Alexander Wengrave’s guests in act 1, are now seen drifting between three London shops, chatting to the shopkeepers, flirting with their wives and ribbing each other. We see  Laxton flirting with Mistress Gallipot of the tobacco shop, borrowing money from her and telling the audience, aside, that he doesn’t like her much but strings her along with promises of a sexual dalliance, meanwhile borrowing money from her to spend on other women.

Finally, enter Moll Cutpurse, chatting and joshing with the shopwomen. Laxton – who has emerged as the randiest and most cynical of the gallants – pesters her to make a date with him and eventually she gives in and agrees to meet him at Gray’s Inn Fields at 3 that afternoon.

Trapdoor then enters, spots Moll, and quickly offers to be her servant, flirts and fawns over her. She’s suspicious but agrees to meet him, also, in Gray’s Inn Fields between 3 and 4. The gallants go off to chase a duck with spaniels on Parlous Pond!

Scene 2: A street Sebastian makes a soliloquy about love during which his father enters, unseen, and spies on him. Sebastian notices this (‘art thou so near?’) and steers his speech round to indicating he is in love with Moll Cutpurse, to his father’s predictable dismay. Moll herself enters, accompanied by a porter carrying a large viol on his back (?) and Sebastian woos her. She is polite but rebuffs him – “I have no humour to marry: I love to lie a’ both sides a’ th’ bed myself” – saying she is chaste and will never marry.

Enter a tailor and there’s some crude joking about him taking her measurements for a pair of breeches, an item of clothing normally worn only by men, which Sir Alexander watches with predictable horror.

Sir Alexander comes forward and rebukes his son, saying that Moll will disgrace him because she is a whore and a thief, throwing in the fact that all the worst women in London are called Moll. Sebastian defends her against these general slurs – ‘Would all Molls were no worse’ and exits.

Sir Alexander is genuinely upset and, on this reading, I began to feel sorry for him. But he resolves to pursue and shame Moll. In a final soliloquy, Sebastian decides that he must share his plan with Moll in hope that she will help him and Mary.

Act III

Scene 1 – Gray’s Inn Fields Laxton is hanging round waiting impatiently for Moll to keep her appointment. When she arrives, dressed as a man, he doesn’t at first recognise her. But when he does, she delivers a brilliantly impassioned speech in defence of women and attacking all lecherous men like Laxton who think that just because she smiles and jests and drinks a toast a woman is hot for sex, whereas she is just being human, and Moll draws her sword and forces him to fight, ferociously wishing Laxton was all men who think like him, so she could punish the entire sex.

LAXTON: Draw upon a woman? Why, what dost mean, Moll?
MOLL: To teach thy base thoughts manners: th’ art one of those
That thinks each woman thy fond, flexible whore
If she but cast a liberal eye upon thee;
Turn back her head, she’s thine, or amongst company,
By chance drink first to thee. Then she’s quite gone;
There’s no means to help her, nay, for a need,
Wilt swear unto thy credulous fellow lechers
That th’ art more in favour with a lady
At first sight than her monkey all her lifetime.
How many of our sex by such as thou
Have their good thoughts paid with a blasted name
That never deserved loosely, or did trip
In path of whoredom beyond cup and lip?

‘Have their good thoughts paid with a blasted name?’ It’s a rousing speech that rings down the ages and is still true. Moll cuts Laxton, he refers to the blood running and needing a surgeon and runs off shocked. — He has demonstrated his lack of manliness, his lack. He lacks stones i.e. testicles.

Enter Trapdoor enters. Moll, still dressed as a man, bumps rudely into him, flicks his face and taunts him to attack her. It’s only when he refuses, that she reveals her identity and he immediately fawns and asks to be her man. She calculatingly agrees, promises to pass on to him her hand-me-downs and they exit off to St Thomas Apostle’s, east of St Paul’s. — Trapdoor also shows himself to be all mouth and no trousers, when he refuses to fight with Moll-as-man.

Scene 2 – Master Gallipot’s house And now to another unmanly man, the nagged ‘apron husband’ Gallipot, whose wife despises him for being weak and feeble. This, we realise, is why she wishes an affair with Laxton (although in act 2 we saw how Laxton, in reality, despises her and only strings her along to extract loans from her).

Laxton has smuggled her a letter in which he blethers her with sweet words before coming to the point that he needs £30. She is just agonising over how to get this for him (and her anxiety about money, pawning some belongings but maybe being found out – in a flash reminded me of Madam Bovary and the horrible mess of debts she gets into 250 years later) when her husband comes in, wondering why she’s left the dinner party they’re hosting for friends.

Gallipot spies his wife reading but as he calls to her (‘Pru’) she tears up the letter and invents a sob story on the spot, saying that she and Laxton were engaged to be married, but he went off to the wars, she heard he was dead, and so she married Gallipot, but now Laxton is back and wants to claim her as his wife. Gallipot is horrified as he loves his wife and has had children by her which us why, when she cunningly suggests buying Laxton off with thirty pounds, he readily agrees.

The dinner party guests come out and comment on Mistress Gallipot’s unhappy appearance with much bawdy and obscene double entendres, some of them guessing that Master Gallipot is having an affair, that’s why she looks so upset. They say their goodbyes.

Whereupon Laxton himself enters, complaining about apothecaries (remember we last saw him being cut and slashed by Moll). In what is presumably a comic scene, Mistress Gallipot quickly conveys the lies she’s told her husband (that she and Laxton were engaged), Laxton picks it up quickly, and they both smile as Master Gallipot begs him to accept £30 to make all right between them. Gallipot goes into his house to organise the money and Laxton genuinely praises her for her quick-witted deceitfulness.

Scene 3 – Holborn Street Sir Alexander with some of his grand friends. Enter Trapdoor who silkily tells him that Sebastian and Moll plan to meet at 3 o’clock in his (Sir Alexander’s) chamber to have sex. So. They will trap the pair. To give a cover to their meetings, he instructs Trapdoor to behave as an angry debtor, and so the spy leaves.

His friends, Sir Adam Appleton and Sir Davy Dapper come over to talk to Sir Alexander and the latter reveals that his own son, Jack, is far worse than young Sebastian, he spends a fortune whoring, drinking, and gambling. Sir Davy explains he has decided to teach young Jack a lesson: he will arrange to have Jack arrested, hoping a few days in the Counter (the debtor’s prison) will make him realise the value of money and hard work.

Alexander and Appleton exit, and two officers enter, namely Sergeant Curtilax and Yeoman Hanger. Sir Davy gives them their commission to arrest young Jack and indicates the pub he’s drinking in, just over there, and leaves the pair to capture him.

Just at this moment Moll and Trapdoor stroll up and, spying Curtilax and Hanger in hiding, realise they’re about to arrest someone, Moll decides to save whoever it is. And so when Jack Dapper and his servant Gull emerge from the pub, and just as Curtilax and Hanger move in, Moll and Trapdoor run forward, holding the officers off and telling Jack and Gull to leg it, which they promptly do. Moll’s thoughts: ‘A pox on ’em! Trapdoor, let’s away.’

Act IV

Scene 1 – Sir Alexander’s chamber Sir Alexander and Trapdoor await Moll and Sebastian. Sir Alexander gets Trapdoor to place various valuables around the room, confident that Moll will steal them and, when they bring constables to catch her with them later, it will guarantee she’s thrown into prison, if not executed. They hide.

But instead, Sebastian enters not only with Moll, but with his true love, Mary Fitzallard, dressed as a pageboy. Moll comments wryly as Sebastian kisses Mary, in a boy’s outfit, and then expresses her gratitude to Moll for helping them. Moll observes the valuables laid out as if on purpose to tempt a thief but says that, since she is no thief, they do not tempt her. Instead Sebastian invites her to play on the viola de gamba which she turns out to be skillful on, and accompanies herself singing a couple of songs.

Sir Alexander steps forward and interrupts the playing but it has no great dramatic effect at all. None of the three seem surprised or worried to see him. The conversation carries on, whereby Sebastian appears to have been securing the money – forty shillings – to pay her (I think; I didn’t understand this passage). His father quizzes Moll who claims to be a music teacher and Sir Alex asks her to play the ballad about the witch.

Then Sir Alexander gives his son four ‘angel’s’, being gold coins worth ten shillings each. He has marked them somehow, maybe pierced them. His Cunning Plan is Sebastian will give the marked coins to Moll and, later, Sir Alex will get the constables to arrest her saying they were stolen.

This is act 4 and, for me, absolutely none of this love plot intrigue is working in the slightest. The Roaring Girl feels less engaging than any of the Restoration comedies I read.

Scene 2 – Openwork’s house Two of the merchants’ wives we’ve meant moan about how pathetic their menfolk are. Mistress Openwork laments that Goshawk told her a pack of lies about her husband being in Brentford with a whore, and told her he’d take her there to prove it. It was all lies, as Openwork discovered when she confronted her husband who is now standing in the shop waiting for Goshawk to arrive so he can give him a beating.

For her part, Mistress Gallipot laments that Laxton turned out to be a lying, unmanly deceiver, ‘a lame gelding’. Men get it in the neck in this play. It’s like a feminist manifesto.

This morphs into a long and really unfunny scene. Goshawk now arrives and wants to hurry Mistress Openwork into the boat he’s got waiting but first she insists on bringing Mistress Gallipot with them, which he reluctantly agrees to, then Master Openwork comes up and she furiously accuses him to his face of having an affair with a whore at Brentford. Master Openwork is vehement that this is a lie and then starts demanding who told her this lie and – to cut a really long story short – she admits it was the (now terrified) Goshawk. Enraged, Master Openwork draws his sword and Goshawk piteously begs for forgiveness.

Now, I suppose this is intended as one more proof that sweet-talking gallants are full of ****, but it took pages to get there and I found none of it either funny, or particularly well written. Master Openwork has a little soliloquy opining that the world is a rotten place full of cheats and liars. Well spotted, mate.

In part two of this scene, a young man dressed as a summoner enters and delivers a summons to Master Gallipot. It claims to be a legal document summonsing the Gallipots to court for breach of contract. This has been arranged by Laxton. We learn that after the thirty pounds he was given a few scenes ago, he asked for a further £15. Now Master and Mistress Gallipot threaten the summoner with violence who quickly takes off his wig and reveals himself to be one of the gallants’ associates, Greenwit.

Mistress Gallipot had gone along with the deceit earlier, but now snaps at the size of the sum being extorted. She turns to her husband and confesses everything – that Laxton led her on, but this was all a lie, she was never betrothed to Laxton. Furious, Gallipot now turns to Laxton who is trembling with fear.

With surprising chivalry, Laxton quickly makes up a version of a ‘confession’ which completely exonerates Mistress Gallipot, claiming he set out to seduce her as a challenge, when she claimed to him and his friends that women were virtuous, but she stood solid and unflinchingly loyal to her husband etc etc, and thus Gallipot is mollified and calmed down.

In fact so calmed down that he promptly forgives Laxton and invites him in for a celebration feast (!?).

So, by the end of Act 4, two merchants’ wives – citizens’ wives – have had their virtue assailed by two upper-class ‘gallants’ – Laxton and Goshawk – who both turn out to be lily-livered eunuchs. The women are smarter than the men and their husbands are made of finer stuff, loving and forgiving. And, it feels like half the play is over, as the forgiving merchants invite the foolish gallants in for a feast – something which generally only happens at the very end of a play.

Act V

Scene 1 – A street Enter Jack Dapper, Moll, Sir Beauteous Ganymede and Thomas Long. Moll tells Jack how it was she who saved him from the sergeants and he thanks her. As a sidenote she explains she spotted Trapdoor was a spy and has disposed of him as a player shoves a halfpenny across the board. They are joined by Lord Noland.

At which point Trapdoor enters, like a poor soldier with a patch over one eye, accompanied by a sidekick, Tearcat, all in tatters. They approach Moll and her friends and, at first, pretend to be poor, maimed soldiers from the wars and beg for money. But the account they give of their foreign fighting and travels is so obviously garbled that Moll and her friends realise they are fakes.

Moll tears to eyepatch off Trapdoor’s face – the kind of stylised gesture which is taken to transform someone’s appearance in these plays and suddenly render someone in disguise, recognisable. Then, in a peculiar passage, Trapdoor shows off his skill at using canting terms, and Moll interprets his stream of canting for the benefit of her educated friends (Jack Dapper, Moll, Sir Beauteous Ganymede, Thomas Long, Lord Noland) so much so that they egg the couple on to a canting duel, telling Trapdoor they’ll give him some alms if he performs for them, and this eventually leads into Moll, Trapdoor and Tearcat singing a song entirely in canting language.

Paradoxically, this was one of the few parts of the play I really understood, because the situation – educated, well-off people patronise beggars – is easily graspable, and because the posh people’s dialogue is remarkably and unusually lucid. Thus after Trapdoor uses the term ‘niggling’, Jack says: ‘Nay, teach me what niggling is; I’d fain be niggling’ and a moment later Sir Beauteous comments: ‘This is excellent.’

Trapdoor is paid off and departs. I rather liked him, he was an honest rogue.

Now enters a gallant cutpurse and four or five followers, who threaten to attack our chaps, but brave Moll a) interprets all the cutpurses are saying in their slang and b) outfaces them i.e. intimidates them into abandoning their plan to rob our chaps. They are scared of her and her swaggering reputation. In fact, they truckle to her. Moll declares a particular purse was recently stolen from a man attending the Swan theatre and demands it be returned. The leader of the cutpurses meekly says he’ll see what he can do and they all exit.

The real-life Mary Frith was, apparently, known for righting wrongs and returning stolen purses (sounds a bit too Robin Hood to me) and this encounter prompts the other characters to say how she has been unfairly criticised by society. Now she gives a long speech declaring her innocence of all crimes, saying she merely is acquainted with criminals and knows their cant and tricks solely to help innocent victims. It is a speech in support of all people calumniated by society, not just her but all the women called whores and men called cuckolds who are entirely innocent. People call her Moll Curpurse and blacken her name because she dresses, does and says what she likes – the implication being that people resent and are jealous of her freedom.

MOLL: Good my lord, let not my name condemn me to you or to the world.

If Mary Frith had commissioned this play it could hardly give a more favourable portrait of her!

And so after this long scene of canting and cutpurses leading up to Moll’s second Great Speech, they all head off to the pub.

Scene 2: Sir Alexander’s house The love plot of the play is resolved, namely Sebastian and Mary’s Cunning Plan works. Sir Alexander is still under the misapprehension that Sebastian is madly in love with and planning to marry Moll Cutpurse. He is at home with some of his friends and advisers when a servant comes in to tell them Sebastian and Moll have been seen landing at the Sluice on the Lambeth side of the Thames. But just as they’re planning to go and intercept them, Trapdoor (so we get a bit more Trapdoor) arrives to say the couple have been seen alighting at the Tower i.e. in the opposite direction. Sir Alexander is stung with indecision.

At this moment enters Sir Guy Fitzallard, mother of Mary Fitzallard that Sebastian is in love with. From the start he is aggressively angry towards Sir Alexander, telling him his (Guy’s) daughter wasn’t good enough for him, he blocked his son and Mary’s romance, well much good it’s done him and he hopes he’s happy that his son is now marrying one of the most disreputable women in London, ‘that bold masculine ramp’, Moll Cutpurse. He mocks him, saying he will soon be grandfather to a ‘fine crew of roaring sons and daughters’ who will stock the suburbs with crime.

Well, Sir Guy says – what would tortured Sir Alexander give if he – Sir Guy – could intervene and prevent it happening? He goes on to say, in front of the other nobles present as witnesses, that bets his entire wealth that he can prevent this marriage and, caught up in his enthusiasm, Sir Alexander, accepts the bet, saying he will immediately give Sebastian all those lands he had planned to, if he simply doesn’t marry Moll.

The authors really drag these final scenes out. Enter Moll (dressed as a man) for just a minute or so, just enough time for Alexander to berate her and her to mock him for his greed and short-sightedness, then exits.

So I wasn’t amused but irritated when the authors drag out Alexander’s and our agony even further by having Sebastian enter, accompanied by Sir Guy as if this is the final version of the wedding, and hand in hand with… Moll… wearing a mask. Sir Alexander is delighted his son has married anyone but Moll… but then she takes off her mask and he collapses prostrate that all his plans lie in ashes. God, get on with it!

Moll delivers a comic speech, telling him how lucky he is to have a roaring girl as a daughter in law, men will fear him, crooks will avoid him, and so on. Sir Guy asks Sir Alexander if he will hold to his bet (all Sir Guy’s estate against half Sir Alexander’s) but Sir Alexander insists – now he’s won the bet (the bet that Guy would be able to prevent the marriage of Sebastian and Moll, and it looks like he’s failed), at which point….

Moll steps aside and Sir Guy introduces the real bride who is, God be praised, Mary Fitzallard after all, ceremonially accompanied by Lord Noland and Sir Beauteous Ganymede, and followed by all the London merchants and their wives, so that all the characters are on stage for the happy finale.

Sir Alexander is in flights of ecstasy and in heroic verse praises his son and gives him half his wealth and lands – as promised – and then his beautiful new daughter-in-law, and they graciously accept. Moll points out that she has done everyone a favour organising this happy outcome and Sebastian says she will be rewarded. Sir Alexander apologises for misjudging her.

Enter Trapdoor (hooray, the only character I really like) who kneels before Moll and abjectly apologises for scheming against her, explaining that he laid out the valuables in Sir Alexander’s chamber, hoping to snare Moll, and that he also gave Moll the four marked gold coins (angels) as part of a scam to have her arrested. Moll is surprised, the onlookers are shocked, Sir Alexander abjectly humiliated, and apologises.

I found Sir Alexander’s explicit and clear statement that he has learned from his experiences not to judge people by their reputations and not to listen to rumour, more effective than the savage punishments which conclude Ben Jonson plays:

Forgive me; now I cast the world’s eyes from me
And look upon thee freely with mine own:
I see the most of many wrongs before thee,
Cast from the jaws of envy and her people,
And nothing foul but that. I’ll never more
Condemn by common voice, for that’s the whore
That deceives man’s opinion, mocks his trust,
Cozens his love, and makes his heart unjust.

Sir Alexander ends the play by saying this happy day will be celebrated every year, and he hopes all who have watched it will go away as pleased as he is.

Thoughts

Not funny

Maybe I read it on an off day, but I didn’t find The Roaring Girl at all funny. It contains scenes which are theoretically humorous, but failed to raise any smile to my lips. It lacks the delightful whimsy of The Shoemaker’s Holiday or, at the other end of the spectrum, the savage farcicality of Ben Jonson and his scheming grotesques.

It inhabits an odd no-man’s-land, in which everyone is a gull or crook of one kind or another but none of them really inspire entertainment. Moll’s speeches about how easily women are calumniated were the only things which really woke me up, that and the character of Trapdoor who I warmed to as the nearest thing to a Jonsonian imp, like Mosca in Volpone.

Overall I felt there was something clever, calculating and rather mechanical about it, and kept returning to T.S. Eliot’s words:

The comedies are long-winded; the fathers are heavy fathers, and rant as heavy fathers should; the sons are wild and wanton sons, and perform all the pranks to be expected of them; the machinery is the usual Elizabethan machinery; Middleton is solicitous to please his audience with what they expect; but there is underneath the same steady impersonal passionless observation of human nature. (Thomas Middleton by T.S. Eliot)

Gender etc

Clearly ‘gender’ is a major theme of the play insofar as Moll is a woman behaving as men are supposed to, and not just men generally, but roistering, swaggering, canting, drinking, fighting men. And the play goes to some lengths to demonstrate how feebly unmasculine just about every other man in the play is, compared to her.

Feminist art and literary critics long ago developed a rhetoric about neglected women artists or authors and female characters who rebel, buck the trend and subvert the patriarchy, which make them all sound the same. They make ‘the patriarchy’ sound as if it was the same thing in 1603 or 2003, and rebel women all sound as if they had the same ‘smash the patriarchy’ mindset as contemporary gender studies professors. In other words, they make the past boring by being so predictably and narrowly ideological about it.

Obviously the figure of Moll is striking but what’s a bit more interesting is the way she was not suppressed by The Patriarchy for wearing men’s clothes and swearing etc. What is hiding in plain sight in the simple existence of this play, is the fact that, far from being in any way suppressed or silenced – as feminists love their heroines from the past to have been – Mary Frith was in fact lionised, widely written about and – in this play at any rate – praised to the heavens, depicted as a moral exemplar, teaching true Christian morality (judge people by their deeds not their reputations).

Feminist critics like to write about Moll ‘subverting gender norms’ and ‘transgressing gender-based rules of clothing and behaviour’ as if it was a thrilling conspiracy which only you and I, paid-up members of the feminist gang, can understand. And yet here she was up on stage in a play written to unstintingly praise her, to the applause of a fee-paying audience, in a play which was widely reprinted through the ages.

In other words, if she was ‘subverting’ anything, that ‘subversion’ was very comfortably accommodated in a best-selling play performed to approving audiences.

In other words, Moll entirely conforms to the deeply entrenched stereotype of the rebel-with-a-heart-of-gold figure which dates from at least Robin Hood through to any number of 20th century ‘rebels’, and which Hollywood has made billions of dollars carefully crafting and presenting to audiences who, for a happy couple of hours, can thrill to the ‘subversive’ exploits of James Dean or Bruce Willis or whoever the rebel-with-a-heart-of-gold figure of the hour happens to be, before going back to their suburban homes and their workaday world.

Yes, the figure of Moll may well ‘transgress’ half a dozen easy-to-list rules of Jacobean England – dresses like a man, swaggers like a man, drinks like a man, familiar with the criminal underworld like a man and this ooh-so-daring audacity gives timid feminist critics multiple orgasms – but at a meta-level I’d have thought it’s pretty obvious that Moll entirely conforms to the enduring stereotype of the naughty boy or naughty girl whose exploits we love sharing for a couple of hours at the theatre or cinema, before the entertainment ends.

In a really deep sense, maybe that’s what entertainment – of all types – actually consists of: whether at the circus or a funfair or the cinema or a theatre – it’s entering into a world of excitement and thrills and kings and queens or cops and robbers or thrilling rides – all of which we pay for because, by definition, they are outwith the reality of our boring everyday lives, shopping, cooking, eating sleeping, and commuting to boring jobs in shops and factories and offices.

So when feminists rhapsodise that Moll ‘subverts’ the social norms of her day, all they’re really saying is that she’s in a play. Macbeth subverts the values of the time by being a king killer. Othello subverts the values of the day by murdering his wife. Volpone subverts the values of the time by being an outrageous crook. All the tricksters in hundreds of these city comedies ‘subvert’ the values of the time by virtue of being crooks and criminals. Is there a play from the period where the lead characters do not subvert one or other ‘social norm’ of the time?

Feminists just valorise and prioritise one among the many, many types of ‘subversion’ which occur in almost all these plays, because it is the one dearest to their heart, the only issue which counts for them, the issue of gender, the ‘issue’ which justifies their existence.

But, not being feminists, we are not constrained and blinded by their ideology, and so can read everything they have to say, assimilate it, take it on board, add it to our perspective, but still see that the play contains many other non-gender ideas and themes and images, as did the society of its day.

One of the most obvious is the language of crime…

Canting

Canting was one of the contemporary words used to describe the prolific growth of slang and argot used by thieves and cozeners. There was a very rich literature describing these, even at the time. Indeed, whenever there was a periodic outbreak of plague, such as in 1603 and the theatres went into lockdown, writers like Dekker and Middleton switched to writing satirical or descriptive pamphlets about London life, mostly concentrating on lowlife and criminals.

Dekker wrote a number of pamphlets about contemporary events, but his ones focusing on criminals or ‘cony-catchers’ include The Belman of London (1608), Lanthorne and Candle-light, Villainies Discovered by Candlelight, and English Villainies and he gives an often-quoted definition of ‘canting’:

‘It was necessary that a people, so fast increasing and so daily practicing new and strange villainies, should borrow to themselves a speech which, so near as thy could, none but themselves could understand; and for that cause was this language, which some call pedlar’s French, invented…. This word canting seems to be derived from the Latin verb canto, which signifies in English to sing, or to make a sound with words, that’s to say, speak. And very aptly may canting take his derivation a cantando, from singing, because amongst these beggarly consorts that can play upon no better instruments, the language of canting is a kind of music, and he that in such assemblies can cant best is counted the best musician…’
(Lanthorn and Candlelight by Thomas Dekker)

Anyway, the point is that this play is stuffed with canting terms and street argot, so much so that not only does the Mermaid edition feature notes at the bottom of each page explaining key words, but also (and unusually) a seven-page appendix devoted to canting terms. Highlights include:

  • darkmans = the night
  • lightmans = the day
  • shells = money
  • stamps = legs
  • curbers = thieves who hook goods out of open windows using a long stick with a hook at the end
  • cheats = the gallows
  • bing = to go
  • nip a bung = steal a purse
  • Rom-ville = London

And Act 5 scene 1 is a festival of canting – it contains the canting exchanges between Moll and Trapdoor-as-beggar, who drops entirely into canting terms to impress and/or confuse his educated interlocutors.

TRAPDOOR: My doxy? I have, by the salomon, a doxy that carries a kinchin mort in her slate at her back, besides my dell and my dainty wild dell, with all whom I’ll tumble this next darkmans in the strommel, and drink ben, and eat a fat gruntling cheat, a cackling cheat, and a quacking cheat.

Before Moll, Trapdoor and Tearcat then deliver a canting song! The footnotes again say that one of the best explanations of the profession or trade of cutpurse is again given by Dekker, who provided a neat explanation of key roles and terms, in this clip from The Bellman of London:

He that cuts the purse is called the nip.
He that is half with him is the snap, or the cloyer.
The knife is called a cuttle-bung.
He that picks the pocket is called a foist.
He that faceth the man is the stale.
The taking of the purse is called drawing.
The spying of this villain is called smoking or boiling.
The purse is the bung.
The money the shells.
The act doing is called striking.

You can look up these and numerous other obscure terms in the online version of the play, linked to below.


Related links

Jacobean comedies

Elizabethan art

17th century history

Restoration comedies

The Knight of the Burning Pestle by Francis Beaumont (1607)

It is the spring of 1607 and a play is just about to start in the Blackfriars theatre. Unlike Shakespeare’s Globe theatre across the river, the Blackfriars is not open to the elements but roofed, and it is also small, meaning tickets are more expensive (sixpence compared to a penny admission at the Globe). Not surprisingly, it caters to a more upmarket audience, including courtiers and men-about-town who like to think themselves a cut above the middle-class merchants and artisans of ever-expanding London. The Blackfriars was a venue for ‘coterie drama’ for gentleman ‘wits’, in contrast to the more popular drama of writers like Shakespeare and Thomas Heywood across the water in Southwark.

One last point. The Blackfriars theatre was associated with the fashion for boy actors who grew increasingly popular from the turn of the century, specifically the members of the troupe called The Children of the Queen’s Revels. These boy actors were generally between the ages of 8 and 12! Yes, boys originally played all the roles in this play and many like them. Girls, women, heroines, matrons and old ladies, dashing heroes and crotchety old men – all played by boys.

The prologue

Anyway, a new play is about to begin and the actor playing the Prologue steps forward dressed in a long, black velvet cloak and a garland of bays to address the audience, setting the scene for the troupe’s new play which is entitled The London Merchant. But he hasn’t even completed three lines of the prologue before he is rudely interrupted by a member of the audience, who climbs up onstage to talk to him.

It quickly becomes clear that this man is George, a London grocer, and he starts decrying the new play before it’s even begun, moaning that it’s another one of those satires which mock honest merchants like himself.

Taken aback, the Prologue asks what he’d like instead. The merchant replies he wants to see something which stars a merchant like himself, and tales of romance and adventure. At which point his wife, Nell, starts yelling from down in the audience that she wants to see a play about a grocer who is a knightly hero and kills a lion with a pestle! – a random, off-the-wall suggestion which the loudmouth grocer promptly takes up.

The Prologue complains that they should have told him this request month ago, it’s too late now, they’ve rehearsed the new play and have no boys free to play a merchant. ‘I’ve got the solution’, says the merchant, ‘let my boy Rafe play him, his acting and impersonations are the highlight of every party’. And he promptly gets Rafe to prove it by hauling him onstage and getting him to declaim part of Hotspur’s speech from Henry IV part 1, loudly and confidently.

The Prologue reluctantly agrees that Rafe is pretty good, and tasks one of the assistants to take him backstage to be rigged up in acting apparel, then the Prologue asks for the merchant and his wife to be seated. Comically, they hustle and bustle themselves among the stools on the stage. (This was another feature of the Blackfriars theatre – that supposed wits and gallants paid extra to sit onstage throughout the play, making comments on it or chatting among themselves or grandstanding to the audience.)

By sitting on the stage you have a signd patent to engrosse the whole commodity of Censure; may lawfully presume to be a Girder; and stand at the helme to steere the passage of scaenes; yet no man shall once offer to hinder you from obtaining the title of an insolent over-weening Coxcombe…. If you know not ye author, you may raile against him, and peradventure so behave your selfe, that you may enforce the author to know you.
(The Gull’s Horn-Book by Thomas Dekker, 1609)

The grocer and his wife now rudely push themselves and their stools in among these posh gentlemen, presumably causing amusement in the wider audience down in auditorium at this breach of decorum.

Now the Prologue recommences his speech and out of this initial confusion it emerges that the play is going to have three distinct strands:

  1. The original plot of The London Merchant in which two young men – gentle but stupid Humphrey and charismatic but unpredictable Jasper Merrythought – vie for the hand of the merchant Venturewell’s daughter, Luce, with the usual round of complications.
  2. Rafe’s narrative – The Knight of the Burning Pestle – in which he dresses as a traditional knight errant of romance, is assisted by his squire and page (a fellow apprentice named Tim and a dwarf named George), declaims high heroic poetry and has a series of mock heroic adventures, some of which are based on Cervantes’ recent novel Don Quixote, but many of which stem from the same Iberian romances and mock heroic romances.
  3. Finally, the continual interruptions and commentary from George and his wife, specially whenever Rafe enters – applauding his every move when he’s onstage, and barracking the other actors and demanding his return whenever he’s absent, plus their running commentary on almost everything else, including the reactions of the audience and the gentlemen on stools.

It’s funny but it’s a real ragbag. Jasper, the rascally apprentice, is fired by merchant Venturewell, but manages to ravish young Luce off to the romantic venue of Waltham Forest. There’s an episode where the couple lie down to sleep, and Luce indeed falls asleep, at which point Jasper undergoes a curious transformation and decides he will wake her, threaten her with his sword, declaring he must have her blood to avenge her father’s wrongs (in booting Jasper out of his apprenticeship). This is ludicrous to begin with but is made doubly so by the immediate intervention of Nell the grocer’s wife, who’s never liked him and now starts damning his behaviour.

Later the pallid, useless apprentice Humphrey enters and confronts Jasper, who promptly beats him black and blue, leading Nell the grocer’s wife to not only berate him again, but cross over to poor HUmphrey and offer him several herbal remedies for his poor bruises.

Meanwhile we learn that Jasper’s parents are Old Merrythought and Mistress Merrythought, and their younger son, Michael, still lives with them. Old Merrythought is a strange ‘comic’ creation, he speaks almost entirely in songs, unstoppably answering every question and accusation and request by singing an excerpt from one of the many popular songs of the time.

OLD MERRYTHOUGHT: I would not be a serving-man
To carry the cloak-bag still,
Nor would I be a falconer
The greedy hawks to fill;
But I would be in a good house,
And have a good master too;
But I would eat and drink of the best,
And no work would I do.

He is utterly spendthrift, gay and merry, giving absolutely no thought for the morrow, and so drives his wife mad with his careless insouciance. In fact his wife has determined to leave him because he has spent all their money on drinking and partying.

OLD MERRYTHOUGHT: This it is that keeps life and soul together, mirth; this is the philosopher’s stone that they write so much on, that keeps a man ever young.

Nell, the grocer’s wife, once again is fiercely critical of Old M, not least in the scenes where he shows his complete indifference to his wife, for being ‘an ingrant old man to use his bed-fellow so scurvily’.

The London Merchant moves towards a big scene in the final act, where Venturewell has recaptured his daughter Luce, from Jasper, and locked her in his house, preparatory to her marrying the good apprentice, Humphrey. Jasper concocts a Cunning Plan, which is to pay a boy and some carriers to convey a letter to Venturewell saying that he, Jasper, has died and he has one dying request, can his corpse be conveyed into Venturewell’s house so that Luce can pay her last respects, say goodbye, and be ready to marry Humphrey.

As you might expect, this is a scam, the coffin arrives and Jasper is in it alright, lying still under a black velvet cloth. Venturewell allows it into the living room and leaves Luce to weep and mourn and declaim a page of sad verse over the body of her beloved, before Jasper suddenly leaps up out of the coffin and nearly scares her to death. He quickly gets her to swap places, covers her with the velvet cloth and gets the boy and carrier to convey her out, as if carrying Jasper to a cemetery.

Meanwhile, Jasper hides and covers his face in white flour so that, when Venturewell comes back on stage, Jasper suddenly appears like a ghost, terrifying Venturewell and threatening to haunt him for the rest of his life until he makes things right, beats and punishes Humphrey. Poor Humphrey enters at this stage and is promptly beaten for the second time in the play.

This is more or less the climax of the main play as Venturewell promises to do absolutely anything to make things right with the ghost and avoid being haunted – at which point Jasper reveals that he is not in fact dead, invites Luce back onstage, and gets the relieved Venturewell to agree to their being married. Finally.

Meanwhile, this narrative has been interwoven with a series of comic mock-heroic escapades featuring Rafe.

RAFE: My name is Rafe; I am an Englishman,
(As true as steel, a hearty Englishman,)
And prentice to a grocer in the Strand

It is clear from the moment he comes back onstage, hurriedly dressed up in the best knightly costume that the boy players can be spared, and sets about telling his squire (Tim the apprentice) and George the dwarf that they must no longer call him Rafe but address him as ‘the Knight of the Burning Pestle’ and so on, that his segments are going to be the most amusing.

RAFE: I charge you that from henceforth you never call me by any other name but “the right courteous and valiant Knight of the Burning Pestle;” and that you never call any female by the name of a woman or wench, but “fair lady,” if she have her desires, if not, “distressed damsel”; that you call all forests and heaths “deserts,” and all horses “palfreys.”

Three of his adventures stick out. He and his liegemen travel out to Waltham Forest (where their tracks cross, at various points, Jasper and Luce, and Mistress Merrythought and her son, Michael) and put up at the Bell Inn which is transformed, in his imagination, into a castle.

The host of the Bell twigs to the joke and then Rafe to visit the cave of the monster Barbaroso who is, in fact, the village surgeon-barber, and where they find three ‘victims’ languishing in his ‘dungeons’, who are in fact a customer having his hair cut and two others undergoing the totally quackish treatment Elizabethan surgeon-barbers were famous for. (The red and white swirly pole outside barbershops to this day recalls the times when surgeon-barbers let blood as well as shaving and trimming their customers.)

And lastly Rafe leads a number of his fellow prentices out to Moorfields in what, onstage, amounts to half a dozen small boys drilling with toy weapons, but in Rafe and the grocer’s imagination, becomes an army training before setting off to the wars in France.

But, Nell, I will
have Ralph do a very notable matter now, to
the eternal honour and glory of all grocers.

All the way through Rafe’s high-blown heroic poetry and noble sentiments, especially when he meets a damsel in distress (for example Mistress Merrythought when she gets lost in Waltham Forest), are undercut by the fact that he occasionally lets slip that he is in fact a grocer’s apprentice whose girlfriend is Susan, a cobbler’s daughter from Milk Street.

What’s odd because it’s inconsistent about these scenes is that we all understand they have been extemporised i.e. they’re not part of the rehearsed play being performed for us – and yet Rafe and the other characters in his ‘romance’ parts of the plot – the innkeeper and his daughter, the barber Barbaroso and his victims – all play along with the gag. This doesn’t really make sense – how could all these people be prepared, dressed and rehearsed with no time?

And it’s even weirder, because they are not only – on the face of it – extemporising with impressive speed, they are extemporising a play within a play within a play: because not only is Rafe 1. performing a play whose scenes 2. have been inserted into The London Merchant, but 3. he is shown explaining to the actors playing an innkeeper or a barber, that they in fact need to 3. speak and act on another level, as heroic characters from romance.

Some of Rafe’s scenes closely echo scenes in Cervantes’ long fiction Don Quixote, the first part of which had been published only a few years earlier, in 1605, although there is scholarly argument about whether Beaumont took the scenes from Cervantes or from earlier mock heroic comedies which are common sources for both.

The Rafe plot concludes after the grocer and his wife loudly demand a heroic ending for their Rafe and so, once the Jasper-Luce-Venturewell happy ending is tied up and they’ve exited the stage, Rafe staggers onstage with a fake arrow through his neck, as if mortally and heroically wounded in the wars, before delivering a long and ‘moving’ death speech and expiring to the floor – despite the disapproval of one of the main players:

WIFE: Now, good husband, let him come out and die.
CITIZEN: He shall, Nell.—Ralph, come away quickly, and die, boy!
BOY: ‘Twill be very unfit he should die, sir, upon no occasion — and in a comedy too.

Nell the grocer’s wife is beside herself with emotion, and immediately makes Rafe get to his feet and take a bow and introduces him to the fine gentlemen sitting on their stools and commends him to the audience. Everything has a happy ending and the audience go away happy.

The title

The title has about three sources and/or meanings. The pestle was one of the many signs hanging outside the shops of tradesmen in London, the pestle from a mortar and pestle used to grind up the spices sold at a grocer’s shop.

The pestle can also be thought of as a kind of weapon, along the lines of a club, and appears as such on the heraldic shield which the players quickly knock up for Rafe. And on the level of sexual innuendo which absolutely drenched Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre, it symbolises a penis, and the burning sensation can be attributed to the very common sexually transmitted diseases of the period, syphilis and gonorrhea.


Related links

There is no author’s name on any of the early printed editions of the play and the tradition grew up that it was one of the many collaborations between Beaumont and John Fletcher. Thus the 1913 edition of the play which Project Gutenberg has transferred online indicates that the play was written by both authors. But according to the editor of the 1986 New Mermaid edition, Michael Hattaway, recent, detailed studies of the play’s language have conclusively proved it was by Beaumont alone.

Jacobean comedies

Elizabethan art

17th century history

Restoration comedies

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