What Martin Chuzzlewit owed to Measure for Measure

Now we’re finding the footprints of Shakespeare everywhere. Several months ago (see this post), we mentioned something that various scholars have observed: the main plot of The Old Curiosity Shop follows that of King Lear. In Lear, of course, the old king rashly gives up everything to his unworthy elder daughters, then finds himself a homeless wanderer and a fugitive, stripped of his reason. He’s restored to peace and sanity by a reunion with his youngest daughter Cordelia before first she, then he, dies.

Charles Dickens

Something a lot like that happens in The Old Curiosity Shop. Little Nell’s grandfather foolishly fritters away everything in gambling dens and lapses into senility, then becomes a wandering fugitive, protected by Little Nell. In a small Shropshire village, the old man finds peace and follows Little Nell to the grave.

We hesitate to think we’re the first to notice that the main storyline in one of Dickens’s less popular novels, Martin Chuzzlewit, is even more closely related to a Shakespeare play. And by no means have we surveyed the vast field of Dickens criticism. But we haven’t seen the relationship between Chuzzlewit and Measure for Measure noted anywhere else.

In Measure for Measure, the Duke of Vienna, blaming himself for letting morals decline during his lenient rule, and also quietly outraged by the hypocrisy of one of his chief deputies, concocts an elaborate plan for putting things right. He starts by announcing that the deputy, Angelo, will take over his job (absolute ruler of Vienna) while he’s gone on a long trip. Everyone else thinks Angelo is a paragon of virtue, but the Duke knows better; he’s disgusted with Angelo for jilting a young woman and meanly casting aspersions on her character — all because a dowry he had expected from her family had been lost.

Angelo and Isabella

The Duke arranges to stay around town in disguise. Sitting in the Duke’s chair, the self-righteous Angelo takes a hard line against fornication and sentences young Claudio to death for bedding his fiancée before they could be married. But when Claudio’s sister Isabella comes to Angelo to make a personal plea for her brother, Angelo himself is overcome with lust. He refuses to pardon Claudio unless Isabella yields herself to him.

Isabella tells Angelo that to save Claudio, she’ll come to his bed, but the duplicitous deputy gives secret orders for Claudio to be executed anyway. In the nick of time, the watchful Duke emerges from the shadows, springs into action, saves Claudio from the chopping block, exposes Angelo as a hypocrite, and oversees a series of weddings.

The main plot of Martin Chuzzlewit (of course there are various minor plots) has striking parallels. Old Martin Chuzzlewit, wealthy and powerful, is regretting some of his failings (especially his relationship with his grandson and heir, young Martin Chuzzlewit); he’s also revolted by the hypocrisy and pretensions of his relative Seth Pecksniff. He concocts an elaborate plan for putting things right in which he pretends to withdraw from the scene by seeming to fall into senility, pretends to trust Pecksniff as his only friend, and lets Pecksniff speak and act for him. Pecksniff has a great reputation for benevolence and for skill as an architect, but old Martin knows Pecksniff for a colossal hypocrite and a fraud.

Pecksniff rises to the bait. To ingratiate himself with old Martin, he drives away young Martin, who had been his architectural student and who had become engaged against old Martin’s will to the old man’s young secretary and companion, Mary Graham. Found out by his faithful assistant and greatest admirer, Tom Pinch, Pecksniff expels him as well on the lying pretext that Pinch has improper intentions on Mary.

Old Martin gives Pecksniff his comeuppance in an illustration by Wray Manning from our Heritage Press edition of Martin Chuzzlewit

Pecksniff then makes unwelcome advances toward Mary Graham (Victorian sensibilities required Dickens to be far less explicit here than Shakespeare was with Angelo and Isabella). He blackmails Mary by threatening harm to young Martin if she complains of him to old Martin. In the ripeness of time, old Martin emerges from his feigned state of incapacity to expose Pecksniff publicly as a liar and a hypocrite. He reconciles with young Martin and gives his blessing to a series of weddings.

At the heart of both Shakespeare’s play and Dickens’s novel, therefore, is a morality tale of the exposure and punishment of a hypocrite. Parallels abound, but the most important are these:

(a) in each story a powerful senior figure appears to leave the arena, but in fact continues to manipulate people and events from the shadows, like a Greek god;

(b) he confers authority to act for him on a supposed paragon of virtue who is in fact a hypocrite, expecting that the hypocrite will expose himself by abusing his authority,

(c) in the course of his stewardship, the supposed paragon lusts after a virtuous, much younger woman and blackmails her with threats of harm to someone she loves, and

(d) the senior figure reappears and presides over an melodramatic, orchestrated denouement in which he exposes and disgraces the hypocrite.

Barnard's portrait of Pecksniff

Not coincidentally, the schemes for exposing Angelo (in Measure for Measure) and Pecksniff (in Martin Chuzzlewit) as hypocrites both seem unnecessarily complicated. Why couldn’t the Duke simply have stripped Angelo of his position and made him marry the girl he had jilted? And why did old Martin need to pretend to be taken in by the unctuous Pecksniff — why should he have had anything to do with Pecksniff at all? One can only assume that the Duke conferred authority upon Angelo — and that old Martin did the same with Pecksniff — so that their falls would be all the greater.

The schemes of the puppet-masters also seem shockingly unkind; the games go on too long. Even if one grants that Claudio has done wrong by bedding his fiancée before their marriage, Claudio’s punishment seems disproportionate. Claudio is made to believe that he is to be executed at daybreak, and the Duke himself, in the guise of a clergyman, visits Claudio to assure him that he is going to die.

In the same way, in Martin Chuzzlewit, though we rather enjoy seeing selfish young Martin taken down a peg, we feel that old Martin’s “tough love” has gotten out of hand when young Martin comes within an ace of dying of malaria in the swamps of America.

But it’s the blameless — the women and the womanish — in both tales who get the worst of it. Neither the Duke (in Measure for Measure) nor old Martin (in Martin Chuzzlewit) seems to care about the collateral damage flowing from their schemes. It’s bad enough that the Duke blithely lets Isabella believe that her brother is truly in danger of execution. But the Duke also lets Isabella bear the insult of Angelo’s demand for sexual favors, and he seems not to care that she must face the moral dilemma of whether to sacrifice her virtue to save her brother’s life. Claudio’s betrothed, Juliet, is another victim; she is actually in labor when she is told that her lover and the father of her unborn baby is about to be executed.

Pecksniff with old Martin Chuzzlewit

In the same way, old Martin makes the innocent Mary Graham believe that she and young Martin will never be married; worse yet, he lets Mary endure Pecksniff’s groping and leering and the insult of his blackmailing. Like Isabella in Measure for Measure, Mary too is made to face a moral dilemma: should she expose the old goat to old Martin, as justice and her honor requires, when to do so will harm young Martin, to whom she owes her love and loyalty? The decent Tom Pinch is another collateral victim; old Martin Chuzzlewit stands passively by while Tom is stripped of his employment and driven from Pecksniff’s doors.

William Charles Macready. This portrait is in the National Portrait Gallery in London.

Knowing that Measure for Measure wasn’t especially popular in Dickens’s day, any more than it is now, we got to wondering how the play came to make such an impression on the novelist. As a young man Dickens was constantly at the theater, but he was only twelve years old in 1824, the last time Measure for Measure was played in London before Martin Chuzzlewit was written. One can assume that Dickens was familiar with all of the Shakespeare plays, but the references to the plays in his novels suggest that as a creative writer Dickens was impacted mostly by the dozen or so Shakespeare plays that he saw performed, the ones frequently performed at Drury Lane or Covent Garden, like Macbeth and King Lear.

We think, after a little research, that the answer probably has to do with Dickens’s close friendship with the distinguished actor William Charles Macready. As we noted in an earlier post, Dickens was even more than usually immersed in Shakespeare during the period (1837 to 1843) when he was writing Nicholas Nickleby, The Old Curiosity Shop, and Martin Chuzzlewit. And on June 16, 1837, Dickens was introduced to Macready, the leading figure in London theater, a pre-eminent Shakespearean actor, and a student of Shakespeare. They promptly became close friends.

Over the next 40 months, Macready recorded in his journal at least 31 occasions in which he spent time with Dickens — dining with him and sometimes Mrs. Dickens too, going here and there with Dickens, consulting with Dickens about Macready’s theatrical projects, reading new plays recommended by Dickens, being visited by Dickens in his dressing room after performances, being toasted by Dickens at the Shakespeare Club. (Among other things, Macready advised Dickens of the “utter impracticability” of adapting Oliver Twist for the stage.) Dickens clearly reveled in his friendship with Macready; he dedicated Nicholas Nickleby to Macready and sent him an inscribed copy.

In the latter part of 1837 Macready took over the management of the Covent Garden Theatre and made Shakespeare a staple of its repertoire. Macready’s journal indicates that Dickens became personally involved with Macready’s work at Covent Garden, which included revivals of Macbeth, King Lear, The Tempest, Henry V, and other plays. It also records that Macready wrestled with whether some of the lesser-known Shakespeare plays could be effectively performed as written; he studied The Winter’s Tale closely and mounted it at Covent Garden in the latter part of 1837, but rejected Timon of Athens outright.

One of the plays that Macready was considering was Measure for Measure. The play was not nearly as obscure as Timon; in fact, Macready himself had played the part of the Duke at Drury Lane in 1824. On several dates in August 1837, Macready noted in his journal that he was laboring over the task of memorizing (or perhaps re-memorizing) the Duke’s lines.

In the end, Macready didn’t revive Measure for Measure at Covent Garden after all, nor, apparently, did he ever perform the role of the Duke on stage again. But given the new intimacy between Macready and Dickens at this time and for the next several years, it is no stretch to infer that Macready and Dickens discussed Measure for Measure and the character of the Duke, vetted ideas as to how the play might be staged, and perhaps even rehearsed lines together, thus impressing the story of the play on Dickens’s creative subconscious.

Measure for Measure wasn’t played again in London until 1846 (without Macready). In the meantime, Dickens picked up the threads of Macready’s aborted project and transformed the sixteenth-century story of the Duke, Angelo, and Isabella into the nineteenth-century story of old Martin, Pecksniff, and Mary Graham. The first of 20 monthly installments of Martin Chuzzlewit appeared in January 1843.

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Shakespeare in Nicholas Nickleby

Macready as Shylock

We’ve spent a lot of time digging into Shakespeare in the years since we last read Nicholas Nickleby, and this time through the novel we paid a lot more attention to what Dickens said about Hamlet, Othello, and theater in general.

Dickens’s interest in Shakespeare was probably never higher than while he was writing Nickleby. Among other things, it was in 1838 that his close friend, the actor William Charles Macready, put on the first King Lear in two hundred years that actually used nothing but Shakespeare’s original text, with Lear’s fool restored to the play and without the “happy ending” that seventeenth- and eighteen-century directors had substituted for Shakespeare’s.  The novel’s episodes involving an ensemble of provincial touring players give us an idea of what was on Dickens’s mind, drama-wise, during this period of his life.

Nickleby let Dickens get in some licks about some of his pet peeves.  For instance, there was apparently a lot of nonsense passing for Shakespeare “criticism” in the 1830s, just as there is now. We meet, briefly, Mr. Curdle, who

had written a pamphlet of sixty-four pages, post octavo, on the character of the Nurse’s deceased husband in Romeo and Juliet, with an inquiry whether he really had been a ‘merry man’ in his lifetime, or whether it was merely his widow’s affectionate partiality that induced her so to report him.

One can only wonder what Dickens would have thought of some of the arcane titles of masters and doctoral theses being written today.

And there was apparently also misguided sentiment for Shakespearean actors of bygone days:

“It’s not as if the theatre was in its high and palmy days . . . the drama is gone, perfectly gone. . . . What man is there, now living, who can present before us all those changing and prismatic colours with which the character of Hamlet is invested?” exclaimed Mrs Curdle.

‘What man indeed — upon the stage,” said Mr Curdle, with a small reservation in favour of himself. “Hamlet! Pooh! ridiculous! Hamlet is gone, perfectly gone.”

William Hogarth's 1745 portrait of David Garrick as Richard III. Perhaps it was the Garrick era of Shakespearean acting that the Curdleses were nostalgic for.

Dickens and his friends at the Shakespeare Club, which was active during 1838 and 1839, must have passed at least some of their time making fun of drama purists who insisted that plays exhibit Aristotle’s “unities.” We couldn’t help thinking that Mr. Curdle’s notion of “the unities” wasn’t much different, or any more precise, from what devotees of a certain modern-day cult think and say about “diversity”:

“I hope you have preserved the unities, sir?” said Mr Curdle.

“The original piece is a French one,” said Nicholas. “There is abundance of incident, sprightly dialogue, strongly-marked characters—”

“—All unavailing without a strict observance of the unities, sir,” returned Mr Curdle. “The unities of the drama, before everything.”

“Might I ask you,” said Nicholas, hesitating between the respect he ought to assume, and his love of the whimsical, “might I ask you what the unities are?”

Mr Curdle coughed and considered. “The unities, sir,” he said, “are a completeness—a kind of universal dovetailedness with regard to place and time—a sort of a general oneness, if I may be allowed to use so strong an expression. I take those to be the dramatic unities, so far as I have been enabled to bestow attention upon them, and I have read much upon the subject, and thought much. . . . — I don’t know whether I make myself understood?”

“Perfectly,” replied Nicholas.

Dickens’s point, of course, was that great plays like Hamlet and Henry V, not to mention then-new plays like Victor Hugo’s Hernani, paid no regard to the “unities” whatsoever and succeeded because of their “abundance of incident, sprightly dialogue, [and] strongly-marked characters.”

And Dickens clearly had affection for actors who went above and beyond in preparing to play their roles. As his character Vincent Crummles says,

“We had a first-tragedy man in our company once, who, when he played Othello, used to black himself all over. But that’s feeling a part and going into it as if you meant it; it isn’t usual; more’s the pity.”

Dickens presumably would have appreciated modern-day “method” actors like Robert Duvall and the late Marlon Brando who spend months immersing themselves first-hand in the culture of their characters.

We had failed to notice, until we saw it pointed out in this fine essay by Dr. Paul Schlicke, that the principal storyline in The Old Curiosity Shop resembles that of King Lear.  We can’t detect any such direct correlation between Nicholas Nickleby and a Shakespeare play.  Still, when we read the speech in chapter 61 in which Nicholas tells his sister Kate that the two of them will grow old as bachelor and old maid together (“But rich or poor, or old or young, we shall ever be the same to each other, and in that our comfort lies”), we felt certain we were hearing an echo of Lear’s wonderful speech to Cordelia: “Come, let’s away to prison. We two alone will sing like birds i’ th’ cage.”

And Dickens wrapped up this novel the same way that Shakespeare ended several of his plays: with arbitrary weddings for all the deserving characters. Dickens didn’t prepare us for the mating up of Miss La Creevy and old Tim Linkinwater any better than Shakespeare prepared us for the pairing of Paulina and old Camillo at the end of Winter’s Tale (still fresh in our mind from seeing this year’s wonderful production of that play in Stratford, Ontario; see this post).

We rank our ten favorite Shakespeare plays

Sargent - Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth

Macbeth may not be one of our favorite Shakespeare plays, but this portrait of Ellen Terry playing Lady Macbeth is probably our favorite picture by John Singer Sargent

Since starting the Emsworth blog, we’ve been amazed to see how many first-rate websites and blogs are devoted more or less exclusively to Shakespeare. The one we like best and visit the most is the indispensable Shakespeare Geek, whose learned readers happily debate such enduring questions as whether Hamlet’s mother was in on the murder of his father. The Geek has guest appearances from Shakespeare experts, passes along news from the world of Shakespeare scholarship, and cheers the ongoing impact of Shakespeare on culture.

The Geek recently invited readers to rank their favorite ten Shakespeare plays so he can poll the results. This is our list:

10. Measure for Measure. A bracingly earthy play in which a hypocritical judge sentences fornicators to death, but demands sex from a woman who seeks mercy for her brother. Angelo is one of our favorite villains. And there’s the glorious cameo role of Barnardine, the reprobate who successfully insists that he’s too drunk to be executed.

We were delighted to learn recently that, back in the early 1800s when Thomas Bowdler prepared his editions of Shakespeare with the smutty parts taken out or rewritten to make them suitable for family reading, he threw up his hands and gave up Measure for Measure as an incurable case.

Shylock -- Al Pacino (2004 movie)

Al Pacino as Shylock

9. The Merchant of Venice. The first Shakespeare we ever read and still a top favorite, even though we have yet to see a good production. Who can resist either the trial scene or the “In such a night” duet of Lorenzo and Jessica?

We’d like a moratorium on the whining about the ethnic stereotypes in this play. Sure, Shylock’s character shows evidence of the ingrained prejudices of the day, but the playwright’s affirmation of our common humanity was a breakthrough. And as Portia says, “If to do were as easy as to know what were good to do, chapels had been churches, and poor men’s cottages princes’ palaces.”

8. Troilus and Cressida. All good literature and drama is “relevant” (how we despise that tiresome word!) in today’s world. But what Shakespeare play presents a more apt metaphor for our own times than this tale of Greeks, lost in sensuality and relativism, who have lost the sense of what they’re fighting for, or why it makes any difference which side they’re on? The play’s attractions include two of Shakespeare’s most repulsive characters, Thersites and Pandarus.

Falstaff - Orson Wells

Orson Wells as Falstaff

7. Henry IV, Part 1. The play that gives the best sense of England in the Bard’s own day. Prince Hal’s slumming with Falstaff is great fun.  But the picture of Falstaff’s manning his regiment with unarmed peasants for cannon fodder is sobering. Those were cruel times.

If the Shakespeare Geek were inviting his readers to rank their favorite practical joke scenes in Shakespeare, our favorite would be the prank Falstaff’s fellow villains played him on the highway near Gadshill. (Our second favorite is the hilarious scene in All’s Well in which the blindfolded Paroles, believing himself a prisoner of the enemy, doesn’t hesitate to betray his comrades.)

Prospero -- John Gielgud

John Gielgud as Prospero

6. Othello. So many Shakespeare plays revolve around characters like Iago who control and manipulate people around them that we’ve often thought the playwright must have had recurring fantasies of having godlike control over his fellow humans. But none of the Bard’s other puppet masters is so thoroughly sociopathic as Iago. The visceral impact of the final scene is unparalleled.

5. The Tempest.  Gonzalo will forever be a hero to Emsworth and all bibliophiles because he made sure the castaway Prospero was supplied not only with food and clothes, but also with books:

Knowing I lov’d my books, he furnish’d me
From mine own library with volumes that
I prize above my dukedom.

Even the wretched Caliban knew the value of Prospero’s books:

Remember
First to possess his books; for without them
He’s but a sot

4. Hamlet. For all the usual reasons, we never tire of Hamlet. And the comic relief — the garrulous Polonius, the traveling players, the gravediggers — always comes just when the play needs it the most.

Fuchsia -- Mervyn Peake's drawing

Mervyn Peake's drawing of his own character, Fuchsia

3. Twelfth Night. Here we confess that since boyhood we have been prone to hopeless crushes on fictional female characters: Mona in Elizabeth Enright’s The Four-Story Mistake, Perry Mason’s secretary Della Street, Titus Groan’s sister Fuchsia in Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy, Bobbie Wickham in P. G. Wodehouse’s Wooster/Jeeves stories, Jane Austen’s Emma — and the quick-witted, slender-figured Viola, heroine of Twelfth Night.

Feste’s our favorite Shakespeare fool. There’s just no other Shakespeare comedy that we like nearly so well.

2. Julius Caesar. A gripping story, the best plot of any Shakespeare play. So many delicious scenes: Cassius’s courtship of Brutus, the assassination of the tyrant Caesar, the “Friends, Romans, countrymen” speech, the exquisite quarrel between Brutus and Cassius — and especially the cameo appearance of the unfortunate Cinna the poet. “Tear him for his bad verses!”

Brian Bedford as Lear

Brian Bedford as Lear at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, 2007

1. King Lear. This is Emsworth’s favorite Shakespeare.  We identify in an alarming way with Lear, with his monumental mistakes of judgment, with his inability to swallow his pride, with his instinct for the grand and the dramatic.  And Emsworth has three daughters too (and is counting on them to take care of him in his old age)! 

The comic moments in King Lear almost overshadow the tragic. Just when his heartache is most acute, Lear has the presence of mind to address “Poor Tom” with a self-deprecating witticism: “Didst thou give all to thy two daughters?”

Christopher Plummer writes In Spite of Myself

christopher-plummer-in-spite-of-myself4Literature it’s not, but what a read! Christopher Plummer has written a memoir of his life on the stage, on the movie set, and in the bedroom. We were riveted by every page of stage gossip and titillating reminiscences.

In Spite of Myself reads in Mr. Plummer’s own voice; there’s no trace of a ghost-writer. He begins with his childhood in Montreal, where his mother read him the Just So Stories and The Wind and the Willows (just what Emsworth read to his own children!) and the Canadian humorist Stephen Leacock (introduced to Emsworth by his favorite college professor). She also took him to the theater (his first play: J. M. Barrie’s Mary Rose, another of our favorites).

diana-barrymorePlummer studied piano but was upstaged by a more talented high school classmate, Oscar Peterson. Still underage, he began to hang out at Montreal nightclubs, where he met an alcoholic Diana Barrymore, who asked her to escort him to a posh after-dinner party. As Plummer remembers it,

I boldly sat down at the piano, hoping to accompany Diana in a French song or two. She winked at me and took up the cue. As was her custom, she had decked herself out in a daringly revealing low-cut dress. In the middle of a song in order to emphasize a phrase, she made a sweeping theatrical gesture, miles over the top, when suddenly, not just one but two glorious breasts popped out in full view and stayed out for the rest of the number.

That’s on page 49; this 650-page book is full of juicy bits like this.

And his amours! For the most part, Plummer names names. By his account, he has enjoyed the favors of scores of beautiful women (besides his three wives) over his long life.

His show-business stories (not all of which involve him personally) are marvelous. One that tickled our fancy has to do with the composer-pianist Percy Grainger, whom Plummer saw in Montreal as a teenager:

The Australian, Percy Grainger, came to town very often — declined hotels and insisted on sleeping on his piano in a studio at Steinway Hall. He was most eccentric and would play only two encores: “The Man I Love,” as if Grieg had written it, and his own “Country Gardens.”

plummer-and-andrews1For the most part, Plummer’s gossip is good-humored; several accounts of nasty behavior by show business colleagues omit names. One is left in awe of the sheer numbers of distinguished actors, directors, playwrights, and producers, from Noel Coward and David Selznick to Katharine Hepburn and Julie Andrews, that Plummer has known during his career.

And there’s plenty in this book about the Stratford Shakespeare Festival (Stratford, Ontario), which is clearly close duke-ellington-such-sweet-thunder-stratford-dedicationto Plummer’s heart, as well as about Plummer’s work in England and on Broadway. Did you know that Duke Ellington dedicated his 1957 album Such Sweet Thunder to the Stratford Festival? Plummer met Ellington when the composer, doing research for his album, was in Stratford monitoring a rehearsal of Hamlet.  The dedication’s right there on the front cover.

One does not have to believe all of Plummer’s stories to enjoy them. (Did Grainger really sleep on his piano?) At one point Plummer tells of a Montreal music critic who fell asleep, missed a performance by Horowitz, wrote a glowing review of a performance he did not hear, and only discovered afterward that the maestro had become ill and did not play. Over the years we have heard other versions of such a story, with different performances and critics; no doubt Plummer thinks he is telling the original.

Another tale that tested our credulity involved an affair between the young Plummer and a married actress. According to Plummer, he and the lady were making love on a chair in a dressing room when the lady’s husband walked in and engaged them in casual conversation. Supposedly, the husband never suspected what was happening, because the lovers’ lower limbs were fully covered by the woman’s long, full gown. It’s clear that’s how Plummer remembers the incident. But it’s hard to believe it happened quite that way.

We expect that it is because Emsworth has raved for years about Plummer’s performance as Lear at the Stratford Festival in 2002 that one of our daughters knew to snap up a copy of In Spite of Myself plummer-as-lear-with-company1for our Christmas stocking. In fact, Plummer’s King Lear remains the high point of our theater-going career. Plummer’s ribald, swaggering king seemed to us exactly what the Bard had in mind. And with Plummer, the language barrier simply disappeared; he rendered Shakespeare’s immortal lines so naturally that he might have been speaking twenty-first century American.

King Lear (and Cordelia) on canvas

In an earlier, generously illustrated post, we noted how artists have liked to paint scenes from Hamlet. Happily, artists have also given plenty of attention to Emsworth’s favorite Shakespeare play, King Lear.

The finest Lear picture that we know is also the easiest to see in person, at least for New Yorkers. It’s at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and it illustrates abbey-cordelias-farewell1the end of the dramatic first scene in King Lear. The aging English warrior and king, Lear, has called his three daughters to him in order to divide up his kingdom among them; he plans to enjoy himself in retirement at their respective castles.

With ill-considered vanity, Lear first asks his daughters to tell him how much they love him. Goneril and Regan flatter the old man shamelessly and are awarded their shares of his kingdom. But Cordelia, his youngest daughter and always his favorite, refuses to play the game and arouses the wrath of the choleric old king, who gives her nothing and banishes her in a fit of pique.

Cordelia calls out her hypocritical sisters in a parting speech whose lines are engraved on the frame of Cordelia’s Farewell, the 1894 picture by the American artist Edwin Austin Abbey from the Met shown above:

Ye jewels of our father, with wash’d eyes
Cordelia leaves you: I know you what you are;
And, like a sister, am most loath to call
Your faults as they are nam’d. Use well our father:
To your professed bosoms I commit him:
But yet, alas, stood I within his grace,
I would prefer him to a better place.
So farewell to you both.

The three sisters are on the left side of Abbey’s large painting (nearly ten feet wide!). Regan wears a dark gown, Cordelia wears a bitter smile and holds up the folds of her red dress, and Goneril, in white, points toward the back of the stoop-shouldered Lear, who is followed by a dog. (The dog is not in Shakespeare.)

abbey-the-play-scene-from-hamlet-yale-1897Scenes from Shakespeare seem to have been something of a speciality for Abbey. He used a similar palette in The Play Scene in Hamlet, at the art museum at Yale University (shown here; Hamlet is lying with his head on Ophelia’s lap). It looks as if his models for the two pictures may have been wearing some of the same borrowed costumes and props.

In the play, things go badly for Lear after he has given away his kingdom. Regan and Goneril can’t be bothered with their father and refuse to let him stay with them; they even turn him away in the face of a storm.

william-dyce-king-lear-and-the-fool-in-the-stormAs the tempest reaches its height, Lear wanders on the heath, accompanied only by his Fool and his faithful friend, Kent, railing against the elements, his ungrateful daughters, and the unjustness of the fates. Of all the scenes from Lear, the tempest scene seems to have been the most tempting to painters. This large picture, King Lear and the Fool in the Storm, by the Scottish painter William Dyce, who showed the wind but overlooked the rain, was painted about 1851 and is at the National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh. The Fool is begging his master to go and ask his daughters for mercy: benjamin-west-king-lear-detroit-1788“here’s a night pities neither wise man nor fool” (Act III, scene 2).

Kent persuades Lear, nearly mad with grief, to take shelter in a hut, a scene that is the subject of the American artist Benjamin West’s crowded 1788 painting, King Lear (just above), which is at the Detroit Institute of Arts. In the hut, Lear, the Fool, and Kent are joined by Edgar (disguised as a madmen), and then by Lear’s friend Gloucester, who romney-king-lear-in-the-tempest-tearing-off-his-robes-iii-iv-107-12risks the wrath of Lear’s older daughters by offering the king food and shelter. According to Maria Grazia Messina in Shakespeare in Art, the English portrait painter George Romney was “obsessed” with the story of Lear. The Romney painting to the left, King Lear in the Tempest Tearing off his Robes (left), gives us the moment in Act III, scene 4 when Gloucester appears through the storm, looking for Lear. In the center of the picture, Lear is tearing off his clothes in solidarity with the near-naked Edgar; the Fool points to Gloucester, who carries a torch: “Look, here comes a walking fire.”

william_blake_-_lear_and_cordelia_in_prisonToward the end of the play, Cordelia returns from exile with a French army and is briefly reunited with her father, whose senses are recovered and who now realizes how unjust he has been to his youngest daughter. But after a battle, both Lear and Cordelia become prisoners of the bastard Edmund, as depicted in William Blake’s 1779 watercolor, Lear and Cordelia in Prison (above), james_barry_-_king_lear_weeping_over_the_death_of_cordeliawhich is in the Tate Britain in London. At Edmund’s order, Cordelia is hanged. Lear discovers her body and carries her onstage, then himself dies of grief, the scene portrayed in the Irish painter James Barry’s 1774 picture, King Lear Mourns the Death of Cordelia.

What Harry Potter could have learned from Hamlet

Despite his best intentions, Emsworth has occasional brushes with popular culture. A few years ago, for example, he fell prey to the addictive tales of J. K. Rowling. What a story-teller! But the way she concluded her Potter story in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, released about a year ago, was hugely unsatisfactory.  Now, after spending some time with Shakespearean tragedy (for example, see Emsworth’s review of Hamlet at the Stratford Festival in this post), Emsworth is in a position to explain why.

J. K. Rowling simply failed to respect the rules of tragedy. For six heart-racing volumes, the Harry Potter saga was shaping up as one of the grand tragedies in our literature. But in the end, Rowling lacked the intestinal fortitude needed to end her tale properly.

The rules of tragedy have been well understood since Aristotle laid them down 2,000 years ago, and I summarize them here, not intending to patronize any readers, but merely to refresh them on what they learned while studying Julius Caesar in ninth grade. A tragedy must, first, be a serious story about a conflict between a hero and a great malign force. In a tragedy, moreover, the hero must undergo a change of fortune, preferably because of his own mistake or flaw, leading to a disastrous, heart-rending denouement.

Consider Lear, that warrior king and grand personality, whose fatal mistake is to misjudge the characters of his daughters and to surrender his kingdom prematurely. With his world aligned against him, he loses everything. King Lear ends, oh so satisfyingly, with a stage strewn with corpses. Kent and Edgar, who survive, rule in Lear’s place.

Consider Othello, that great general and commanding figure, whose fatal weakness is to trust the sociopathic Iago and to allow him to plant fatal seeds of jealousy in his bosom. Weakened, Othello loses everything, and the play ends (once again, most gratifyingly) with blood and bodies everywhere. Gratiano, a minor character, succeeds to Othello’s place.

Daniel Radcliffe as Harry Potter in "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix"

Now consider Harry Potter, a hero among heroes, a wizard prodigy, a born leader and Quidditch captain, whose destiny is to battle the world’s greatest wizard. Like Lear, Othello, and Hamlet, Harry has a fatal weakness: a powerful connection with Voldemort tempts him to the dark side. Harry flirts too closely with evil and, in a moment of ambition and weakness, betrays his friends. Too late, he repents, and the story ends with bodies (including his own) and wands broken and strewn over the great hall at Hogwarts. The wizard world starts anew; a minor character, Neville Longbottom, succeeds to the place in the world of wizards that Harry might have held.

Only, of course, that’s not how J. K. Rowling wrote it. Because she lost her nerve plotting and writing the final volume, Harry never makes a fatal mistake, never loses his way, and rises safely and blandly from the wreckage of the final battle.

And so do Hermione and Ron. And so does practically everyone else. In fact, after all the hullabaloo and speculation by Potter fans over what would transpire, who among the Order of the Phoenix actually dies? An elf. The werewolf. The duplicitous Severus Snape. One of the Weasley twins (the twins do not have distinct personalities). Tonks (you probably don’t remember who she was, either).

J.K. Rowling lost her nerve in "Deathly Hollows"

In fact, at no point in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — for that matter, at no point in the series — are readers called upon to deal emotionally with the deaths of any character they have truly come to care about, except Dumbledore, and his age and infirmity take the sting out of his loss. J. K. Rowling flinched at her final task, which was to break our hearts.

She even shrunk from disposing of her villains. What possible reason could Rowling have had for letting Percy Weasley live? When a character in a tragedy has lost his way and gone over to the enemy, he must perish, even if he has belatedly seen the light. J.R.R. Tolkien understood this; that’s why the great warrior Boromir was slain at the end of The Fellowship of the Ring.

And why, oh why, does Draco Malfoy survive? In a properly staged final battle, Harry’s arch-enemy would repent and, in a moment of high drama, would strike a critical blow on Harry’s side. Then, having atoned for his earlier wickness, and in a state of grace, Draco would die fighting. At the very least, Draco should die at the hand of the Dark Lord, so as to punish his parents for their wickedness. But nothing of the sort happens. Readers are not even told what happens to Draco after Harry last encounters him.

Let there be no mistake: J. K. Rowling wanted to write a tragedy. Why else would she have attached an epigraph to the Deathly Hallows in the form of a quotation from the playwright Aeschylus, the father of Greek tragedy (died 455 B.C.)?  But when it came down to cases, she lacked the stomach for the tragic conclusion that her story deserved.

From the dark tone of the fifth and sixth books, we were fully justified in expecting that (a) the forces of good would, in the final conflict, sustain serious losses and (b) that even if the Dark Lord were defeated, the wizard world would never be the same. In The Lord of the Rings, for example, to which the Harry Potter saga owes much, the defeat of Sauron marked the end of an age and the departure of the elves from Middle-earth.

Instead, Rowling left readers in a wizard world where all was copacetic, where the survivors were happily mated up, and where their little wizard offspring were happily heading off to Hogwarts. Sentimental rubbish, and a good tragedy wasted.