The Book of Kings

November 1, 2009 § Leave a comment

The Collected Works of William Shakespeare (The Histories)

“For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of Kings
How some have been deposed, some slain in war
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed
Some poisoned by their wives, some sleeping killed,
All murdered…”
King Richard II, in Shakespeare’s play of the same name

Why, you may well ask, did I read The Collected Works of William Shakespeare, and even if I did, why the set of ten lesser-known plays named after English monarchs? When asked why he wanted to climb Mt. Everest, George Mallory famously replied, “Because it is there.” In fact, it is worthwhile to quote Mallory  more extensively on the subject, because I feel it applies equally, with a few minor substitutions, to my attitude toward reading arcane books:

 “The first question which you will ask and which I must try to answer is this, ‘What is the use of climbing Mount Everest ?’ and my answer must at once be, ‘It is no use’. There is not the slightest prospect of any gain whatsoever. Oh, we may learn a little about the behavior of the human body at high altitudes, and possibly medical men may turn our observation to some account for the purposes of aviation. But otherwise nothing will come of it. We shall not bring back a single bit of gold or silver, not a gem, nor any coal or iron. We shall not find a single foot of earth that can be planted with crops to raise food. It’s no use. So, if you cannot understand that there is something in man which responds to the challenge of this mountain and goes out to meet it, that the struggle is the struggle of life itself upward and forever upward, then you won’t see why we go. What we get from this adventure is just sheer joy. And joy is, after all, the end of life. We do not live to eat and make money. We eat and make money to be able to enjoy life. That is what life means and what life is for.”

I acquired William Shakespeare’s Collected Works eight years ago, when preliminary ambitions of a well-stocked library were beginning to take shape in my mind. Such a library, I reasoned, would be incomplete without Shakespeare. “A husband isn’t to look at,” as Golde admonishes her daughter, in a similar vein, in one of the more memorable lines from Fiddler on a Roof, “A husband is TO GET.”

At some point, my goal changed from owning all the right books, to reading as many good books as a lifetime can accommodate,  and I began to derive satisfaction from actually having read Thucydides and Adam Smith, Radhakrishnan and Wittgenstein, Erasmus and Samuel Beckett.

Therefore, Shakespeare – and thus, his Histories. The Comedies are his quickies, involving cross-dressing capers and romantic romps – no major challenges there for me. The Tragedies remain to be read next, but they are much celebrated and I look forward to them with eager anticipation. It’s the Histories that I had very little idea about, and so it’s the Histories that I decided to tackle first.

So, finally: what did I make of those histories, then?

I found King John a very ordinary effort. I was told to watch out for Falconbridge the Bastard, as an example of an early Shakespearean attempt to create a memorable character, but found him unsatisfactory and half-formed, a tentative prototype for better things to come. Richard II had some very good lines, though I found him whiny and self-pitying, and I meandered through the play in vain search of a character to sympathize with. Henry VI was excruciatingly dull – all three parts of him. I believe this was Shakespeare’s first play, and the most charitable description of it is thus: a rookie mistake. Henry V describes the legendary king’s valiant leadership of the English to their famous victory over the French at Agincourt, and if you happen to be English, you ought to find it suitably soul-stirring. I don’t, and so I didn’t. Henry VIII is an exercise in sycophancy – it ends with the birth and baptism of Henry’s daughter, Elizabeth, Shakespeare’s own monarch. Shakespeare wisely subjugated his sense of literary aesthetics to his instinct for self-preservation. It is difficult to create great art if every character is to be constrained by prevalent royal opinion of good and evil (although, in all fairness, when James I became monarch, Shakespeare promptly wrote Macbeth, which incorporated a sly doff of the hat to James’ alleged ancestor, Banquo, thus proving that it was possible to marry great art with flattery). (Also, as a footnote written two years after the original post, I just read Marjorie Garber‘s Shakespeare After All, which tells me that a) the Henry VIII play was written in James’ time, not Elizabeth’s, and b) my unlearned condescension towards the Richard II, Henry VIII and Henry VI plays was richly undeserved. But it doesn’t – and cannot – change the fact that my reading experience was not the best – either because of the quality of the plays or that of the readership.)

Which leaves the only plays that I truly enjoyed reading: Henry IV and Richard III.

Henry IV is actually more about Prince Hal (the future Henry V), beginning with the wanton debauchery of his youth and his father’s disapprobation (Part I) and ending with his redemption on the battlefield, and triumphant ascension to the throne to replace a gratefully dying father (Part II). In literary terms, of course, the character that saves the play from obscurity is Sir John Falstaff, a companion of Prince Hal’s in his early drunken escapades. Falstaff is a fictional character in a play that has serious pretensions to historical accuracy, and so I expected him to be a very minor character, introduced merely for comic relief. It becomes clear, at a reasonably early juncture in the two-part Henry IV play, that the main plot is not really about Henry IV at all – but it is only at the very end that it becomes startlingly apparent that the main protagonist is, in fact, Falstaff . How impressively sneaky, how delightfully subversive of Shakespeare, to pretend that this was a History, while all along, the kings, the battles, the facts, are nothing but props, an elaborate backdrop for a profoundly heartbreaking story of a very uncommon commoner who dared to befriend a prince.

At least, thanks (improbably!) to Al Pacino, I was prepared for the brilliance of “The Life and Death of King Richard III“. Here too, I discovered, the play isn’t only about King Richard, though it isn’t about any other character, either. No, this play is about William Shakespeare himself – showing off , telling us what he is capable of. Look at me, Shakespeare is saying. Here’s what I do here with you, my audience. It is child’s play to make you feel sorry for infants and invalids. Lesser playwrights – Christopher Marlowe and why, even George Chapman – could do that. Watch me. Take an ugly cripple, instead. Let’s say he engineers the death of his own brother. He kills a man, then woos and marries his widow – then he kills her, when he has no further use for her. He then kills his brother’s children, and then tries to marry their sister, in order to strengthen his hold on the throne of England. And yet, at the very end, as he wanders around the battlefield, confronting his conscience and distractedly crying, “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!”, you can’t help feeling sorry for him.

You, I imagine Shakespeare saying, feel sorry for him because you don’t really have an option. I will make you feel sorry for Richard, even such a villain as he, because I can, because as long as you are reading or watching my play, I am in control of what you think, because you are a puppet on my string, because I. Am. William. Shakespeare.

And that is what it is all about.


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