Shakespeare, Despair, and (Yes) Blackadder

Shakespeare, Despair, and (Yes) Blackadder October 9, 2020

I have been posting about my recent immersion in watching Shakespeare’s plays, working my way through the complete series of BBC productions broadcast between 1978 and 1985. When planning the viewing extravaganza, I deliberately left a couple of the more obscure plays until last, assuming that they would be of lower quality or less interest. That was totally wrong. They overwhelm.

Troilus and Cressida

The prime example was Troilus and Cressida (1601). I still don’t know exactly what the play is, or how it was even meant to be presented. It is a stunningly radical and nihilistic piece, and accounts differ as to whether it was actually performed during Shakespeare’s time. Perhaps the theater company intended to perform it and (wisely) got cold feet? Was it even intended as a play for performance, or was it intended to be read, by select groups of the cynical and heretical?

To over-simplify, Troilus and Cressida is a point by point rejection of pretty much all core social and literary values and beliefs. These include romantic love, in a play where the two title characters pledge undying love, which lasts until the heroine transfers her affections to another man. The play is set in the Trojan War and the world of the Iliad, which non-Greek speaking English people were discovering around this time from George Chapman’s best-selling translation of the work from 1598 onward. But Shakespeare’s version depicts the Greek characters as ruthless and dishonorable thugs.

This is a very complex and wordy play (which encourages my belief that it was meant to be read rather than performed) but one scene in particular summarizes the whole theme. Achilles encounters the unarmed Hector, to whom he should show chivalrous respect. To the contrary, he orders his thugs, the Myrmidons, to murder Hector, and then to go around reporting that Achilles had killed him in valiant battle. Honor is a myth, above all in war. So are any heroic codes or ideals. The play is called Troilus and Cressida, but actually, it should be titled Pandarus and Thersites, from the two utterly cynical figures on the two sides, Trojan and Greek, who drive and comment on the action. They mock every vestige of romantic love and honor. The play has gorgeous and much quoted lines about the necessity for hierarchy and deference – and then subverts and mocks all those values.

As very often happens in Shakespeare, the plays are about people whose lives consist of acting: actors play characters who become actors or players, striving to present an image to the world. Shakespeare was very fond of the word “play” in its various senses, and it litters many of the works. In a classic role reversal scene in Henry IV Part I, the actor playing Falstaff suddenly impersonates Prince Hal; while the actor playing Hal impersonates Falstaff, and for the first time, the two characters can finally engage in a frank and realistic exchange. A similar idea surfaces in Troilus and Cressida. Ulysses tells the Greek lords how Achilles and Patroclus spend their times doing satirical imitation of peers and leaders like Agamemnon, behaving “like a strutting player.” But as becomes apparent, the greatest actor and hypocrite of all is Achilles himself, the mighty warrior hero of Western civilization.

But at least amidst all the cynicism and despair there is one rock of hope which is … actually, no there isn’t, nothing at all. I have written before about the religious content and context of Shakespeare’s plays, but those aspects are very striking here by their absence.

I really wonder about the setting of the play, but I note that it was likely written very shortly after the disastrous Essex Revolt of 1601, when so many aristocratic young heroes had their careers ruined by conspiracy and over-ambition. Not to mention the seemingly eternal English wars in Ireland. The global context also demands attention, and it is hard to exaggerate just how dreadful that was. Through the late 1590s, Europe endured some of the most brutal weather in its recorded history, as volcanic blasts darkened the skies in many parts of the globe. Europe suffered from heavy and seemingly incessant rain, and famine conditions afflicted much of the continent. English harvests failed repeatedly, as weakened populations succumbed to plagues. Matters reached their nadir with the Huaynaputina (Peru) eruption of 1600, which caused new famines worldwide. Those accumulating horrors placed enormous strains on states, stirring wars and rebellions in France and the Netherlands, Ireland and Russia, and in the Ottoman Empire. Geoffrey Parker writes aptly of the Nasty Nineties. Nature – or God? – seemed to be undertaking a war to the death against humanity.

If I was looking for a modern-day analogy of the period and its cultural mood, the sense of pervasive disenchantment and betrayal, I might point to the US in the early 1970s, and all the utterly cynical conspiracy movies of the post-Vietnam post-Watergate mid-decade. For a high culture literary parallel, I would seriously turn to the Marquis de Sade.

Pericles Prince of Tyre

Might we see Troilus and Cressida as a low point of cynical despair, from which the only way was up? Famously, several of the late plays written after 1601 (not all) concern forgiveness and reconciliation, and ask critical questions about the limits of forgiveness. Just how far can someone go before you can’t or won’t forgive them? The answer appears to be very far indeed. Most obviously, see Measure for Measure (1604), The Winter’s Tale (1610), and The Tempest (1611). In The Winter’s Tale, reconciliation and redemption are going to happen one way or another, even if Shakespeare has to stage an otherwise unexplained resurrection for the long-dead Hermione.

The other “minor” play is the late-career piece Pericles Prince of Tyre of c.1608, in which some collaborator (George Wilkins?) wrote the confused and rather limping first half, and Shakespeare the second. T. S. Eliot was not just being customarily provocative when he wrote of “that very great play Pericles.” Like several of Shakespeare’s late plays, Pericles is about a great man who has lost his way, but who is redeemed by a daughter. Make whatever biographical points you want about what that meant for Shakespeare himself in the opening decade of the century, with his two young daughters. Forgiveness and reconciliation are very much in evidence, together with women – daughters and wives – apparently being raised from the dead. Shakespeare’s women had a bad habit of doing that.

In that and other ways, Pericles is a compendium of moments and themes from other Shakespeare plays, but none the worse for that.

Sexuality and Corruption

Most memorable in Pericles are the extended scenes in which the lost daughter Marina is confined to a brothel, where she struggles to retain her chastity. The dialogue in these scenes is aggressively frank and sexual, and uses sexual sin and disease as an extended metaphor for pervasive social and maybe political corruption. It’s just a passing line, but does Lysimachus really suggest that you could have expected prostitutes to have begun their careers at five or seven?

Again, this sexual content meshes with other late plays, such as the scene with the prostitutes Phrynia and Timandra in Timon of Athens (1607). I don’t know whether these themes reflected a crisis in Shakespeare’s own life, or else a larger social critique common at the time, but it is powerful. There is a real suspicion and fear of unchecked sexuality. As in late Victorian times, when fears of sexual diseases were rampant, those ailments serve as a metaphor for systemic corruption, and for concealed evils within families. Think Ibsen’s Ghosts.

The same ideas also feature in Troilus and Cressida, including the amazing final speech by Pandarus, the closing words of the play. Addressing bawds and brothel-keepers, he promises to “bequeath you my diseases.” There is yet another reason why I can’t imagine this play being directed to a general theater audience rather than an intellectual clique.

I note a scholarly article by John J. Ross, who observes that

Shakespeare’s obsessive interest in syphilis, his clinically exact knowledge of its manifestations, the final poems of the sonnets, and contemporary gossip all suggest that he was infected with “the infinite malady.” The psychological impact of venereal disease may explain the misogyny and revulsion from sex so prominent in the writings of Shakespeare’s tragic period.

As Ross observes,

I can find only 6 lines referring to venereal infection in the 7 plays of Christopher Marlowe. However, 55 lines in Measure for Measure, 61 lines in Troilus and Cressida, and 67 lines in Timon of Athens allude to venereal disease.

Actually, I would expand those counts considerably by including some veiled and tangential references, including those in Pericles. You might also argue that Hamlet (c.1600) is as overflowing with “misogyny and revulsion from sex” as any of the later ones, although without the disease metaphor.

I don’t necessarily agree with Ross’s overall analysis. Shakespeare also knew a huge amount about the technical jargon of witchcraft and devil worship, to the point of being “clinically exact,” although he was neither witch nor sorcerer. But Ross’s study does suggest just how ubiquitous a metaphor those diseases became in the years that those plays were written, in the first decade of the seventeenth century.

Far less remains to be said about King Lear (1605), one of the most studied and discussed works of literature in any language. A couple of things struck me on this viewing, perhaps reflecting my naivete. I always knew that the Fool was a core figure, but had not appreciated just how many of the weird and “prophetic” lines came from Edgar in his insane persona (and the Fool himself has no lines in Acts IV or V). Nor had I quite realized just how thoroughly the play revolved around the two brothers Edgar and Edmund, who are on stage so much throughout – far more, say, than Cordelia. If ever a play deserved to be titled The Two Noble Kinsmen, this was it.

And At Last, On a Lighter Note…

In a departure from high culture, I finally realize where Rowan Atkinson got the idea for his character of Edmund, Lord Blackadder, in the second season of Blackadder (1986). He is precisely channeling Michael Kitchen’s Edmund from the 1982 BBC production of Lear. Finally, a literary observation of real significance!

There are a great many other film and television productions of Shakespeare, often accessible through Netflix or Amazon Prime, or one of the related services like Acorn or Britbox. One of the real highlights is the amazing film version of Julius Caesar set in modern Africa, with Paterson Joseph. I also have some off-kilter favorites that are not exactly mainline productions, including Peter Greenaway’s Prospero’s Books (1991) and Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho (also 1991, oddly).

I am not claiming it as a high point of Western theater, but I personally loved the 2016 film of Midsummer Night’s Dream by Russell T. Davies of Dr Who fame, with comedian Matt Lucas as Bottom (Lucas also had his Dr Who career). One review described it fairly enough as  “Doctor Who-ish but rather good.” I thought it was riotous.


Trying to supply a bibliography on Shakespeare is an impossible task, but one book that gives a fine context for the later plays is Helen Wilcox, 1611: Authority, Gender And The Word In Early Modern England (Wiley Blackwell, 2014). I also found useful Thomas Fulton and Kristen Poole, eds., The Bible On The Shakespearean Stage: Cultures Of Interpretation In Reformation England (Cambridge University Press, 2018).



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