“I’ve got my country’s 500th anniversary to plan, my wedding to arrange, my wife to murder and Guilder to frame for it; I’m swamped.” (Prince Humperdinck, The Princess Bride)

I have an enduring weakness for swashbucklers, which I think is due to watching Errol Flynn at an impressionable age.

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So of course I have been watching the BBC series The Musketeers, which ended a few weeks ago.  I was very put-out that [SPOILER ALERT] Marc Warren’s dastardly Comte de Rochefort died in the final episode. There wasn’t really any other option for his character, but Marc Warren always creates great baddies and I was sad to see him go (also he looked awesome– I think eyepatches should come back as a thing):

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I thought I’d console myself by looking this week at literary villains.  There are so many great ones to choose from, and villains are often so much more compelling than the heroes.  Of course some of them are just downright despicable:

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But generally the story is a sorrier place when they’re not in it (and therefore usually ends at that point).

Firstly, for obsessive, depraved stab-happy villains, you need never look further than Jacobean tragedy.  I’ve chosen Ferdinand from The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster (1612). Ferdinand is the twin brother of the titular character and he is barking mad (quite literally, as he thinks he is a werewolf and goes round digging up graves after dark).  He doesn’t want the sister he characterises as a ‘lusty widow’ remarrying.  To this end he employs melancholic henchman Bosola:

‘Your inclination to shed blood rides post

 Before my occasion to use you.  I give you that

 To live i’ the court here, and observe the duchess;

 To note all the particulars of her haviour,

 What suitors do solicit her for marriage,

 And whom she best affects.  She’s a young widow:

 I would not have her marry again.’

The poor Duchess, being female, is entirely disempowered against Ferdinand and her other brother, a corrupt Cardinal.  She only wants love:

“Why should only I,

Of all the other princes of the world,

Be cas’d up, like a holy relic?  I have youth

 And a little beauty.”

She finds affection with the pretty steward Antonio, but normal family life never stands a chance in the depraved court where your own brother is sexually obsessed with you “my imagination will carry me/ To see her in the shameful act of sin”  and spends his time, when he’s not pretending to be a wolf, imagining you in flagrante:

Happily with some strong-thighed bargeman;
Or one o’th’woodyard that can quoit the sledge
Or toss the bar; or else some lovely squire
That carries coals up to her privy lodgings.

Yep, Ferdinand is insane.  Yet he’s part and parcel of a society that is utterly degraded and false.  In the hands of a good actor, he isn’t cartoony evil, twirling his moustache, but almost as much as a victim as the Duchess.  There have been two productions in London in recent years which have seen excellent performances by Harry Lloyd (Old Vic, 2012) and David Dawson (Globe, 2014) as Ferdinand, both of which captured his cruel depravity, and his tragedy.

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This being a Jacobean tragedy, I don’t think it’s a SPOILER to say that everyone dies, yet Webster gives Ferdinand a moment of clarity, and some of the most beautiful lines in drama, as his dying words:

Whether we fall by ambition, blood or lust,
Like diamonds we are cut with our own dust.

Amazing. Those final lines make Ferdinand complex and insightful, and a truly great villain.

Secondly, another sure-fire source of colourful villains: Charles Dickens.  I’m not the biggest Dickens fan, but actually the things I don’t like about him (clearly delineated binaries like good/bad and one-dimensional stereotypes instead of fully realised characters) do make for opportunities to enjoy all-out villainy.  You can usually tell the villains in Dickens because he helpfully signposts them through names like Ezekiel Slime or similar.  In this instance, I’m going to look at David Copperfield’s (1849) Uriah Heep (see what I mean?) the obsequious clerk to David’s landlord Mr Wickfield. I chose him over a more obvious villain like Bill Sykes from Oliver Twist, because he’s more insidious (although Bill Sykes outdoes every villain in the millinery stakes):

 

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Bill Sykes never tries to present himself as anything other than downright terrifying, whereas Uriah Heep is always trying to convince everyone of his humility:

“”I got to know what umbleness did, and I took to it. I ate umble pie with an appetite. I stopped at the umble point of my learning […] I am very umble to the present moment, Master Copperfield, but I’ve got a little power!'”

Of course, he is far from humble.  Instead his fawning manner disguises a vicious class jealousy and powerful ambition to take over the Wickfield business through blackmail, before marrying the virtuous Agnes (as someone who can’t stand Dickens’ pious virgins I think it’s not a bad match, but I realise I may be alone in this). With Victorian beliefs that appearance demonstrated character, it seems improbable that anyone would ever trust the unattractive Heep:

“a youth of fifteen …whose hair was cropped as close as the closest stubble; who had hardly any eyebrows, and no eyelashes, and eyes of a red-brown, so unsheltered and unshaded, that I remember wondering how he went to sleep. He was high-shouldered and bony; dressed in decent black, with a white wisp of a neckcloth buttoned up to the throat; and had a long, lank, skeleton hand…”

Yet he still manages to ingratiate himself quite successfully and defraud the Wickfields amongst others.  Of course, this being Dickens, the good end happily and the bad unhappily, so his comeuppance is inevitable.  Heep is a highly effective villain, wholly unlikeable and so oily he just seeps across the page. Uriah Heep : a villain so villainous they named a rock band after him (really).

To end, probably the most single-minded, seductive villain of all time (George Sanders’ voice is a joy):

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“And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover/To entertain these fair well-spoken days,/I am determined to prove a villain” (Richard III)

Richard III is being buried today in Leicester Cathedral after his remains were discovered in the rather unlikely surroundings of a car park in the county in August 2012.  Controversial to the end, the reinternment of his remains has been delayed by legal wrangling between Leicester and York as to who should have the bones.  Richard III is one of history’s villains, often believed to have killed the sons of Edward IV to secure his own claim on the throne of England (significant crowds attended his funeral procession on Sunday, so maybe he’s been given the benefit of the doubt). This image is due in no small part to the enduring influence of Shakespeare’s portrayal in The Life and Death of Richard III (1591ish), helped along by Laurence Olivier’s 1955 film.

In the interests of balance I thought I would look at this play alongside a novel that seeks to rescue Richard’s reputation.

Richard is an unusual villain in Shakespeare, in that he is the only eponymous character to start his own play (I think…feel free to correct me in the comments!) as he comes on stage to proclaim:

“Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York”

He is also unusual in that he starts with a trochee – bear with me, I’m not going to get too technical & give you flashbacks to the horrors of Shakespeare at school. But I think this is worth pointing out; most characters speak in iambic pentameter (dee-DUM, dee-DUM etc). Richard comes out and seizes the stage with “NOW is…” (DUM-dee): he is in charge from the off.

What follows is the story of a consummate politician doing whatever he deems necessary to seize the crown.  Although he tries to persuade us that his disability (a curved spine, possibly a slightly weaker arm one side) means that through medieval ableism he is marked for villainy (the title quote I’ve used is a pun – he is determined in will and determined by fate) really no-one is less disabled that Richard, as the powerful opening shows us.  He manages to bend everyone to his will; he seduces Lady Anne within one scene, despite the fact that he killed her husband:

“Was ever woman in this humour woo’d?
Was ever woman in this humour won?
I’ll have her; but I will not keep her long.”

This is the bleak humour of Richard III – he plots to kill his fiancée even as he seduces her.  Often the play is described as a tragedy, but it’s really one of Shakespeare’s history plays and the tone is ambiguous: the last production I saw, with Mark Rylance in the lead, played it as a comedy as far as possible.

Richard’s machinations eventually catch up with him and he is defeated by Richmond (Henry VII) at the Battle of Bosworth, desperately crying out “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!” A villain indeed, but the audience, like Lady Anne, is seduced by him against our will and the stage is a poorer space when he’s not in it.

Secondly, Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey (1951).  It was Emmie’s review of another Josephine Tey novel that introduced to me to this author, and although I don’t normally read series’ out of order, I made an exception for Daughter of Time, as the Crime Writers’ Association voted it the greatest mystery novel of all time.

Inspector Alan Grant has broken his leg and is bored to abstraction away from his job at Scotland Yard.  His glamorous friend Marta suggests he try and solve a historical mystery to keep from going stir crazy. Captivated by a portrait of Richard III, he decides to investigate the mystery of the Princes in the Tower.

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(Image from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_III_of_England)

Grant’s team is not comprised of his usual fellow policeman, and they all have varying theories:

“Nurse Ingham thinks he’s a dreary. Nurse Darroll thinks he’s a horror.  My surgeon thinks he’s a polio victim. Sergeant Williams thinks he’s a born judge.  Matron thinks he’s a soul in torment.”

As he becomes more involved in the mystery, Grant repeatedly finds himself in opposition to the legend of Richard III:

“’Always a snake in the grass, if you ask me. Smooth, that’s what he was: smooth.  Biding his time.’

Biding his time for what? He wondered… He could not have known his brother Edward would die unexpectedly at the age of forty […]It was surely unlikely that a man busy with the administration of the North of England, or campaigning (with dazzling success) against the Scots, would have much interest in being ‘smooth’.  What then had changed him so fundamentally in so short a time?”

Grant needs an ally, and it arrives in the form of American academic Brent Carradine:

“He was a tall boy, hatless, with soft fair curls crowning a high forehead and a much too big tweed coat hanging round him in negligent folds…He brought over the chair, planted himself on it with the coat spread around him like some royal robe and looked at Grant with kind brown eyes whose luminous charm not even the horn-rims could dim”

Between the two of them, they start to piece together what they think happened as various powerful medieval families jostled for the crown. The more research they do, the less likely Richard-as-murderer seems to be:

“One could go through the catalogue of his acknowledged virtues, and find each of them, individually, made his part in the murder unlikely in the extreme. Taken together they amounted to a wall of impossibility that towered into fantasy.”

Tey does an excellent job of balancing academic arguments and historical fact with keeping the plot moving (the novel is only 222 pages).  Grant concludes his investigation on the day of his discharge home from hospital, convinced he has his man.  Let’s just say Shakespeare could never have dramatised the conclusion he comes to.

To end, I can’t help thinking that if Richard III had a chance to set the record straight, he’d choose to do so through the medium of song:

“With mirth and laughter let old wrinkles come” (Gratiano, The Merchant of Venice, William Shakespeare)

Today is Shakespeare’s birthday (probably).  It’s almost definitely his death day, but that has a less festive feel to it, so let’s go with birthday.  Happy Birthday, Bard!

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(Image from http://tudorhistory.org/people/shakespeare/ )

I love Shakespeare.  I was lucky enough to fall in love with him at school and I love him still.  I know he’s not for everyone, so I’m only going to discuss one play. But firstly, I thought I’d try and convince you of what I firmly believe, that he is for everyone.  This has probably been done before, so if it has and it was you, please accept my sincere apologies and let me know and I’ll credit you.  I promise I haven’t stolen this from anyone as far as I know.  I thought I’d try one of those “if you liked…” lists that are so annoying  when used by retailers to try & get you to buy more stuff, only in this case I’m using (mainly) Hollywood films (the modern equivalent of a Shakespeare play) to try and get you to buy into the drama.  In no order at all, just how they occurred to me:

If you liked…. Then you may like to try… Because…
The Godfather Julius Caesar/Coriolanus There are power struggles, machinations & murder
French new wave Hamlet Nothing happens, and he tortures himself a lot
 
Rom coms Much Ado about Nothing/As You Like It Bit obvious, this one
 
Indecent Proposal Measure for Measure Sexual bribery abounds
   
Lord of the Rings The Tempest It’s magic
   
Hansel & Gretel/Snow White Macbeth Witches & violence
   
1930s screwball comedies eg  It Happened One Night Taming of the Shrew It’s a battle of the sexes, sometimes physically
   
The Simpsons’ Movie Henry IV parts 1&2 I’ve totally stolen this idea from Dr Emma Smith, who convincingly draws parallels between Homer & Falstaff
   
Scarface Titus Andronicus It’s a bloodbath
   
Grease Love’s Labour’s Lost There are boys, there are girls, they all get together
   
War films Henry V Battles & bloodshed
 
Some Like It Hot Twelfth Night Cross-dressing is the route to true love
   
Trading Places Comedy Of Errors Mistaken identities, a focus on money, it all works out in the end
   
John Grisham adaptations Merchant of Venice Features the greatest courtroom speech ever, even better than “You can’t handle the truth!” (seriously)
   
In the Loop/Political thrillers Richard III Power corrupts…
   
Game of Thrones King Lear A kingdom is divided, power struggles and torture ensue (no incest or wedding massacres though)
   
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas Midsummer Night’s Dream It’s trippy…
   
Psychological thrillers eg Sleeping with the Enemy Othello The course of possessive love n’er runs smooth
The Wolf of Wall Street Timon of Athens Money is the root of all evil
   
Romeo + Juliet   Um, ….Romeo and Juliet Take a guess…

 

Any further or different suggestions are very welcome!

For the second part of this post I thought I’d discuss one of the plays that isn’t that well-known (for a Shakespeare play) or frequently performed, but I really like it, and I’m a bit baffled as to why it’s ignored: King John. King John is one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays, a history play that looks at arguments around royal succession. If that sounds yawnsome, the arguments involve battles, betrayals and murder, as so often in the medieval history plays.

What makes this play so interesting is the central character, who arguably isn’t King John, but his half-brother Phillip Falconbridge (who has more lines than anyone else).  However, no-one calls him by this rather dashing name, or the new one he is given at the start of the play, Richard Plantagenet; he is consistently referred to in the text as The Bastard.  As the illegitimate son of Richard the Lionheart, he is of royal lineage, but legitimacy being of huge significance at the time, he is not an heir.  Other illegitimate children in Shakespeare are somewhat troublesome: Edmund in King Lear and Don John in Much Ado both cause no end of grief.  The Bastard however, is one of the more appealing characters in a play filled with dark, devious, self-serving manipulators.  He has a way with words, and his own morality is uninfluenced by society.  His response to his mother about Richard the Lionheart being his father does not berate her for stigmatizing him:

He that perforce robs lions of their hearts
May easily win a woman’s. Ay, my mother,
With all my heart I thank thee for my father!
…Come, lady, I will show thee to my kin;
And they shall say, when Richard me begot,
If thou hadst said him nay, it had been sin:
Who says it was, he lies; I say ’twas not.

Pretty liberal for the time.  He goes on to fight for King John, and prove himself brave, clever, and more humane than others in what is quite a bleak play:

But as I travell’d hither through the land,
I find the people strangely fantasied;
Possess’d with rumours, full of idle dreams,
Not knowing what they fear, but full of fear: 

Cheeky and irreverent when he’s in court, The Bastard is a man of action who is actually a more accomplished leader than any of the courtly power-wielders. His illegitimacy places him outside of things, and as such he is able to cast a wry and sardonic glance at the action. “Mad world! mad kings! mad composition!” King John is weak, and the play demonstrates that rather than a god-given right to rule, kings are as flawed and human as the rest.   The Bastard gets the last lines of the play, and in his mouth the words:

Now these her princes are come home again,
Come the three corners of the world in arms,
And we shall shock them. Nought shall make us rue,
If England to itself do rest but true.

become not an assertion of England’s strength, but an ironic observation on the weakness and hypocrisy of rulers. The Bastard isn’t a historical figure or in any of Shakespeare’s sources.  He is entirely invented, and one of the many reasons that Shakespeare is still as Ben Jonson described him: “The applause, delight, the wonder of our stage”.  Happy Birthday William Shakespeare – “Shine forth, thou star of poets!”

To end, one of the most famous portrayals of King John, back in the days when he was still a prince:

Feminist Sundays: Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing

Feminist Sundays is a meme created by Elena over at Books and Reviews. Here’s what she says about it: “Feminist Sundays is a weekly meme created at Books and Reviews. The aim is simply to have a place and a time to talk about feminism and women’s issues. This is a place of tolerance, creativity, discussion, criticism and praise. Remember to keep in mind that everyone is entitled to their own opinion, although healthy discussion is encouraged.” Do head over to Books and Reviews to read the excellent posts for this meme so far.

So, this isn’t my usual sort of post, with a theme and two book choices.  Instead, as part of Feminist Sundays I was thinking about any times that a feminist discussion has come up around something I’m reading.  And I remembered a tutor of mine saying that she thought she’d been such a doormat in her first marriage because she’d unconsciously integrated the misogynistic attitudes towards women from her specialism, Renaissance literature (inappropriate disclosure to her students about her personal life was another speciality of hers).

Now, I love Early Modern literature, but I’m not going to try and claim that sixteenth-century England was a progressive, proto-feminist society.  However, at the same time I think my tutor was talking nonsense.  When we look back at Early Modern texts, there are strong females for us to identify with, and I’m going to take a look at one of my favourites, the brilliant Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare. Here’s Emma Thompson in the role:

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Image from: (http://www.monologuedb.com/comedic-female-monologues/much-ado-about-nothing-beatrice/)

This is one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays; the city I live in (London) has seen 3 productions I can think of in recent years (one at the Globe in 2011, the other with Catherine Tate and David Tennant at Wyndams the same year, one this year with Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones at the Old Vic); Joss Whedon also released a film version earlier this year.  I think this is a good indication that Beatrice is a character who still has something relevant to say to us.

For those of you who don’t know the story: a group of soldiers arrive in Messina.  One of the officers, Benedick, has some romantic history with Beatrice (niece of Messina’s governor), and they spend a lot of their time bickering and proclaiming they’re not interested in each other at all – lies, all lies.  Their friends conspire against them, convincing each of the other one’s feelings.  Meanwhile one of the younger soldiers, Claudio, wants to marry the governor’s daughter, Hero, but the evil Don John works to tear this all apart…

This being a comedy, it all works out OK in the end.  Along the way we have some brilliant sparky dialogue from Beatrice.  On hearing Benedick will arrive:

“In our last conflict four of his five wits went halting off, and now is the whole man governed with one: so that if he have wit enough to keep himself warm, let him bear it for a difference between himself and his horse;”

Ouch.  Their first meeting:

Benedick. Then is courtesy a turncoat. But it is certain I am loved of all ladies, only you excepted: and I would I could find in my heart that I had not a hard heart; for, truly, I love none.

Beatrice. A dear happiness to women: they would else have been troubled with a pernicious suitor. I thank God and my cold blood, I am of your humour for that: I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow than a man swear he loves me.

Benedick. God keep your ladyship still in that mind! so some gentleman or other shall ‘scape a predestinate scratched face.

Beatrice. Scratching could not make it worse, an ’twere such a face as yours were.

Beatrice strives to establish and maintain her own personality amongst a society that deems women should be seen and not heard – something she resolutely refuses to do.  She’s witty, she holds her own against Benedick’s jibes, and she’s caring and honest.  She’s also feisty until the end:

Benedick. Do not you love me?

Beatrice. Why, no; no more than reason.

Benedick. Why, then your uncle and the prince and Claudio
Have been deceived; they swore you did.

Beatrice. Do not you love me?

Benedick. Troth, no; no more than reason.

Beatrice.Why, then my cousin Margaret and Ursula
Are much deceived; for they did swear you did.

Benedick. They swore that you were almost sick for me.

Beatrice.They swore that you were well-nigh dead for me.

Benedick. ‘Tis no such matter. Then you do not love me?

Beatrice.No, truly, but in friendly recompense.

[…]

Beatrice. I would not deny you; but, by this good day, I yield upon great persuasion; and partly to save your life,for I was told you were in a consumption.

Benedick. Peace! I will stop your mouth. (Most productions have him kiss her at this point)

Aww, true love conquers all.  And although my feminist side balks at her mouth being stopped once she’s in a relationship, I also think you could never keep Beatrice down, and marriage will not silence her. She and Benedick form a relationship of equals. Compared to the insipid rent-a-virginal-romantic-lead Hero, Beatrice is a fully realised, complex and intriguing female character.  She’s definitely one of my feminist icons.

Here’s a clip from the very enjoyable Globe production mentioned earlier.  Eve Best plays Beatrice, bantering with Charles Edward’s Benedick:

“I must have wanton Poets” (Edward II/Christopher Marlowe)

Oh dear, I’ve been very slack with regard to writing this blog lately.  I’ve been beavering away trying to prepare for my final year at uni, and have not managed my time properly – this does not bode well for the mania of finals.  Anyway, my pending exam failures aside,  I was wracking my brains trying to think of a theme for this post, when all I’ve been doing is studying.  Very dull, and does not make for lots of choices for a theme that relates to my life in any way.  But then I thought of something that happened recently and I want you stick with me when I tell you the theme of this post: its Renaissance theatre.  Wait!  For those of you groaning and having flashbacks to sweating over Shakespeare at school, let me say this: you were taught badly.  Renaissance drama can be the best drama there is, from a golden age of theatre when some of the greatest minds were so engaged with the art form they produced lively, innovative, downright entertaining plays.  Then generations of schoolchildren were tortured into trying to unpick it all bit by bit, whilst being told it was good for them.  I hope if that was your experience you’ll finish reading this post, and let me try and persuade you back into the theatre, because I love it.  The reason I’ve made it the theme of this post is because I went and saw Edward II at the National, and it was fantastic.  For those of you with ease of access to the South Bank, I highly recommend you try and catch it.  The production was so innovative and fresh (actors in the audience, multimedia approach, ad-libbing) but it still didn’t lose sight of Marlowe’s brilliant language.  Its iconoclastic approach may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but for me it was one of the best adaptations I’ve seen.

So I thought I’d look at two more Renaissance plays, neither by Shakespeare, because there’s an abundance of stuff on him, no?  (This doesn’t mean I won’t opt to write a post on him at another time, he was a genius after all).  Firstly, Dr Faustus by Christopher Marlowe.  I last saw this performed in 2011 at The Globe, and it was a great production.  I’m not always so keen on The Globe’s approach to things, but this worked well, and Arthur Darvill (Rory in Dr Who according to the excited audience members that surrounded me) was a perfect Mephistopheles.  Here’s the final scene from that production (filmed theatre is always a bit odd I think, and often does the production no justice, but hey ho):

Dr Faustus is about an academic who sells his soul to the devil, asking him to “Resolve me of all ambiguities”.  Ultimately however, Faustus does not use his devilish power to find the answers to anything, but instead uses his time to enjoy prestige and wealth.  This is the first time he and Mephistopheles (Lucifer’s servant) speak:

MEPH. Now, Faustus, what wouldst thou have me do?

FAUSTUS. I charge thee wait upon me whilst I live,

To do whatever Faustus shall command,

Be it to make the moon drop from her sphere,

Or the ocean to overwhelm the world.

 MEPH. I am a servant to great Lucifer,

 And may not follow thee without his leave:

 No more than he commands must we perform.

 FAUSTUS. Did not he charge thee to appear to me?

 MEPH. No, I came hither of mine own accord.

FAUSTUS. Did not my conjuring speeches raise thee? speak.

MEPH. That was the cause, but yet per accidens;

For, when we hear one rack the name of God,

 Abjure the Scriptures and his Saviour Christ,

 We fly, in hope to get his glorious soul…

This first conversation shows so much about the rest of the play.  Firstly, Faustus is a pompous idiot.  He’s just muttered all these complex Latinate incantations, entirely unnecessarily.  When Mephistopheles arrives it’s because he was hanging around, and dropped in “of his own accord”.  Faustus has not conjured  Lucifer, who would not concern himself with such a weasel.  Faustus asks for silly things, the moon to drop, a servant to obey his commands. Secondly, he has no real understanding of what he’s done, it is Mephistopheles who knows the true price paid with his “glorious soul”.  This devil explains:

MEPH. Unhappy spirits that fell with Lucifer,

Conspir’d against our God with Lucifer,

And are for ever damn’d with Lucifer.

FAUSTUS. Where are you damn’d?

MEPH. In hell.

FAUSTUS. How comes it, then, that thou art out of hell?

MEPH. Why, this is hell, nor am I out of it:

Think’st thou that I, who saw the face of God,

And tasted the eternal joys of heaven,

Am not tormented with ten thousand hells,

In being depriv’d of everlasting bliss?

 O, Faustus, leave these frivolous demands,

 Which strike a terror to my fainting soul!

That line: Why, this is hell, nor am I out of it, to me is the killer line of the whole play.  It shows just how little Faustus understands of what he has forfeited, and makes Mephistopheles the most complex character in the play.  He is both malevolent, and deeply, tragically sad, a fallen angel.  It shows how the person you are enables the power you have, to create a heaven or hell of your own making.  Marlowe was a controversial figure in his time; a government informer claimed the playwright was an atheist, an extreme and dangerous view to hold in the late sixteenth century.  (The informer also claimed Marlowe said “All they that love not tobacco and boys are fools”, a slightly less contentious view at the time).  Atheism was equated with immorality at the time, but I would argue Dr Faustus is a highly moral play whether or not you believe in God.  It asks the questions: what do you worship? and what price are you paying for that worship?  In this way, I would argue it still has plenty to say today, whether you are religious or not.  And if that all sounds a bit heavy, well, the full title is The Tragical History of Dr Faustus, but there are plenty of comic scenes and the play is so artfully written that you never feel like you’re being preached at.

Secondly, a comedy after all that tragedy, by Shakespeare’s frenemy, Ben Jonson: The Alchemist.  Jonson is rarely performed compared to his peers, and I think that’s a real shame.  This play is fast, frenetic, has plenty of physical and verbal comedy and is hugely entertaining.  It’s set in London during the plague, when all those who can afford it have fled to the country.  A servant, Face, takes advantage of his master’s absence to team up with an alchemist, Subtle, and a prostitute, Doll Common, to con people out of their money.  Cue lots of scenes with the three in various disguises, spinning ridiculous stories and scenarios to a succession of gullible idiots.  One of the most colourful of these is Sir Epicure Mammon, who desires the Philosopher’s Stone, for the following dubious reasons:

MAM. For I do mean

To have a list of wives and concubines,

Equal with Solomon, who had the stone

Alike with me; and I will make me a back

With the elixir, that shall be as tough

 As Hercules, to encounter fifty a night.—

 Thou’rt sure thou saw’st it blood?

 FACE. Both blood and spirit, sir.

 MAM. I will have all my beds blown up, not stuft;

Down is too hard: and then, mine oval room

Fill’d with such pictures as Tiberius took

From Elephantis, and dull Aretine

But coldly imitated. Then, my glasses

Cut in more subtle angles, to disperse

And multiply the figures, as I walk

 Naked between my succubae. My mists

 I’ll have of perfume, vapour’d ’bout the room,

 To lose ourselves in; and my baths, like pits

 To fall into; from whence we will come forth,

 And roll us dry in gossamer and roses.—

 Is it arrived at ruby?—Where I spy

 A wealthy citizen, or [a] rich lawyer,

 Have a sublimed pure wife, unto that fellow

 I’ll send a thousand pound to be my cuckold.

Jonson was scathing of those who practiced alchemy (attempting to turn base material into gold) and the greed of both the tricksters and their tricks is scathingly skewered.  However, it is a comedy, and (SPOILER) no-one is severely punished.  Of course, nowadays we’re far too savvy to believe in such things as alchemy – now, where did I put that lottery ticket…..?

Here’s an example of sixteenth-century alchemical experiments in action: