Middleton: The Revenger’s Tragedy

April 27, 2021

The Revenger’s Tragedy
Thomas Middleton
(Oxford, 2007) [c.1606]
50 p.

In his 1908 study of Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, Charles Swinburne calls The Revenger’s Tragedy “the most perfect and most terrible incarnation of the idea of retribution impersonate and concentrated revenge that ever haunted the dreams of a tragic poet or the vigils of a future tyrannicide”. It is indeed a bracing play, propelled by a long-simmering animosity now brought to boil, and it moves nimbly and surely through its scenes toward the vengeance for which it hungers.

At the play’s center is Vindice, a man whose beloved had been poisoned by the Duke nine years previously; in the interim he has been watching, waiting, and plotting his revenge. When an opportunity arises to offer a service to the Duke, he seizes on it, relishing the chance to get close to his target. As the play spools out, he gets his wish — the nine-years-gone poisoning returning in macabre echo — and more than his wish. The play ends, as such plays do, with bodies littering the stage.

We are in the hands of a dark poet. This is a play in which a man tries to convince his sister to play the prostitute to the Duke; in which the stake in a case of mistaken identity is whether a man is beheaded; in which heads swing in burlap sacks and lascivious men unwittingly kiss skulls. But it is also a play with a “profound and noble reverence for goodness” (Swinburne again), a goodness embodied with memorable strength by Castiza, a woman whose adamantine resistance to temptation burns white hot and casts a bright light in the darkness.

The verse of the play is excellent throughout. Swinburne works himself up into quite a sweat in his enthusiasm, waxing eloquent about “the fiery jet of his molten verse, the rush of its radiant and rhythmic lava”. This is not my style, but his love is understandable. Consider this passage, from the first scene, in which Vindice addresses the skull of his beloved, which he has kept with him since she died:

Thou sallow picture of my poisoned love,
My study’s ornament, thou shell of death,
Once the bright face of my betrothed lady,
When life and beauty naturally filled out
These ragged imperfections;
When two heaven-pointed diamonds were set
In these unsightly rings;—then ’twas a face
So far beyond the artificial shine
Of any woman’s bought complexion
That the uprightest man (if such there be,
That sin but seven times a day) broke custom
And made up eight with looking after her.

The introductory essay in my Oxford edition of Middleton suggests that the presiding spirit of the play is that of Yorick, and it is in passages like this that the claim is most convincing.

In general Middleton doesn’t give his characters long speeches — the above is one of the longest — and while this allows the story to move on briskly, it also limits his ability to really develop and unfold his characters. This becomes a problem at the very end of the play when Vindice, his revenge finally achieved, does something that was to me surprising and incongruous: he, who had nursed his anger in secret for so many years, suddenly and most imprudently boasts of his vengeance, to his death. I am tempted to call this a simple, though significant, fault. It is possible, perhaps, that a good actor could find a character arc that makes it plausible, but the text of the play really doesn’t lead us to expect it.

There is also, in this play, the problem that afflicts so many action movies: the drama is engaging until the action begins, and then it slackens and drains. There are many characters who must die before the play ends, and Middleton opts to pack most of them into one scene — the “action scene”, if you wish — in which daggers fly and bodies drop, but in such quick succession that the audience isn’t given time to absorb it; I found it dramatically unsuccessful.

All the same, I found this a ferociously good play, one that would be well worth revisiting. I’ll give the last word to Swinburne, as I gave the first:

There never was such a thunder-storm of a play: it quickens and exhilarates the sense of the reader as the sense of a healthy man or boy is quickened and exhilarated by the rolling music of a tempest and the leaping exultation of its flames.


Lecture nights: Austen on film

April 24, 2021

About a month ago Hillsdale College hosted a series of lectures on Jane Austen and the movies.

In the first, James Bowman gives an overview of the history of Austen adaptations for the screen. He is a longtime critic at The New Criterion, and though I’ve enjoyed his writing for many years, I’d never before heard him speak. He is as judicious and perceptive a critic as you could hope to find. If you take the time to watch, don’t abandon it before you hear his opinion of Autumn de Wilde’s 2020 adaptation of Emma!

In a second lecture, Peter Leithart speaks on ‘Jane Austen and Morality’. Although Leithart is a good judge of cinema (his book on Malick’s The Tree of Life is very worthwhile), his remarks apply as much to the books as to any film adaptations.

A final lecture brings us Whit Stillman speaking on his own experiences adapting Jane Austen for the screen. His is a more diffuse and, if you want, rambling approach, but I found it interesting to hear some stories about the creation of his marvellous Austen adaptation Love & Friendship (which I picked as one of my favourite films of the 2010s), not to mention the ways in which Austen’s books influenced his other films. Recommended especially to admirers of Stillman.

*

There was also a fourth lecture in the series, in which Lorraine Murphy spoke on “The Life and Work of Jane Austen”. It sounded to me like an introductory lecture, so I skipped it, but, to judge by those I did see, I may have missed something good by doing so.

***

For the record, I think the best screen adaptations of Austen are, roughly in order, the 1995 Pride and Prejudice mini-series with Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth, the Sense and Sensibility adapted by Ang Lee and Emma Thompson, the 1996 Emma with Gwyneth Paltrow, and, coming last simply because it adapts a minor work, Whit Stillman’s aforementioned Love & Friendship. And I am right.


Tacitus: Histories

April 11, 2021

The Histories
Tacitus
Translated from the Latin by Church and Brodribb
(Modern Library, 1942) [c.100]
250 p.

Though written first, Tacitus’ Histories begins where his Annals ended: 69 AD. Originally consisting of more than a dozen Books and covering the years up to the death of Domitian in 96, we unfortunately have only the first third or so, which treats just two years: 69-70. They were, however, years rich in incident, stuffed to bursting with short-lived emperors, a time, says Tacitus, “rich in disasters, frightened in its wars, torn by civil strife, and even in peace full of horrors.” (1.2)

*

Nero’s death in 68 had brought an end to the Julio-Claudian dynasty that had ruled Rome since the time of Julius Caesar more than a century earlier. It was unclear who would rise to the imperial throne, and, as is common enough in such circumstances, there were multiple claimants, and a threat of civil war. In four parts of the empire, four men gathered support: on the Iberian peninsula, Galba, a governor with a fairly distinguished track record of civil service; in modern Portugal, Otho, an ambitious governor; in the north, patrolling the Rhine, Vitellius, a popular general; and in the east, Vespasian, a general currently preoccupied with putting down a rebellion in Judaea. The history of these first Books of Tacitus’ Histories is the history of how these four men contended for power.

It was Galba who occupied the throne first. He came to power in the middle of 68 with the support of the Praetorian Guard. He had gained their support because his assistant had bribed the soldiers with the promise of a big payout in return – a bribe Galba knew nothing about, and which, when once he had been named emperor, he felt no need to honour. For this reason, by January 69, when Tacitus’ history begins, Galba was strongly disliked by the Praetorian Guard, a perilous position for any emperor since Tiberius. He was also increasingly hated for his evident cruelty – toward Rome’s soldiers for his revival of the practice of decimation, and by the senatorial and equestrian classes in Rome for his policy of purging not only his enemies, but their families as well.

The camel’s back, in other words, was already quite heavily loaded when Galba made an important announcement on 10 January 69. To ensure a smooth transition in power at the end of his reign, he said, he was adopting as his son, and successor, one Lucius Calpurnius Piso. This news greatly offended and angered Otho, who had had a long relationship with Galba and had expected that he would be named heir. Otho moved quickly, and on 15 January Galba was murdered in the Roman Forum:

“About the actual murderer nothing is clearly known. Some have recorded the name of Terentius, an enrolled pensioner, others that of Lecanius; but it is the current report that one Camurius, a soldier of the 15th legion, completely severed his throat by treading his sword down upon it. The rest of the soldiers foully mutilated his arms and legs, for his breast was protected, and in their savage ferocity inflicted many wounds even on the headless trunk.” (1.41)

Piso, the heir-apparent, was also targeted for assassination. He took refuge in the Temple of the Vestal Virgins, but the soldiers were not pious: they dragged him out and killed him on the steps. The grisly scene was the stage for Otho’s triumphant arrival:

“The Forum yet streamed with blood, when he was borne in a litter over heaps of dead to the Capitol” (1.47)

Of Galba’s character and success as emperor Tacitus makes this judicious appraisal:

“His character was of an average kind, rather free from vices, than distinguished by virtues… He seemed greater than a subject while he was yet in a subject’s rank, and by common consent would have been pronounced equal to empire, had he never been emperor.” (1.49)

**

Otho, however, fared no better than Galba. Already the legions in Germany had rallied behind Vitellius and were marching on Rome. That the emperor was now Otho and not Galba mattered little to them; the sticking point was that the emperor ought to be Vitellius. A confrontation was inevitable, and Otho directed the legions around Rome to prepare and march north. Outright civil war had arrived.

The armies clashed in northern Italy, near modern Genoa. There were skirmishes and sieges, but the decisive battle occurred at Bedriacum on 14 April. Vitellius’ forces were victorious. When the news arrived in Rome, Otho was philosophical. Though he was urged to continue the fight, he decided to cede power to Vitellius rather than sacrifice more lives to his personal ambition:

“By this let posterity judge of Otho. Vitellius is welcome to his brother, his wife, his children. I need neither revenge nor consolation. Others may have held the throne for a longer time, but no one can have left it with such fortitude. Shall I suffer so large a portion of the youth of Rome and so many noble armies to be again laid low and to be lost to the State? Let this thought go with me, that you were willing to die for me. But live, and let us no longer delay, lest I interfere with your safety, you with my firmness. To say too much about one’s end is a mark of cowardice. Take as the strongest proof of my determination the fact that I complain of no one. To accuse either gods or men is only for him who wishes to live.” (1.47)

On 16 April he committed suicide, having been emperor for just three months. Vitellius was proclaimed the new emperor.

*

Vitellius arrived in Rome, accompanied by his rough and wild soldiers from the German frontier, many of whom had never seen Rome before. He was a man, Tacitus tells us, of “shamelessness, indolence, and profligacy,” and under his leadership the city quickly descended into decadence:

“The sole road to power was to glut the insatiable appetites of Vitellius by prodigal entertainments, extravagance, and riot. The Emperor himself, thinking it enough to enjoy the present, and without a thought for the future, is believed to have squandered nine hundred million sesterces in a very few months.” (2.95)

Rumours began to reach Rome that far off, in Judaea, support was rising for Vespasian as a rival to imperial power, but Vitellius seems to have preferred to enjoy, rather than defend, himself:

“Buried in the shades of his gardens, like those sluggish animals which, if you supply them with food, lie motionless and torpid, he had dismissed with the same forgetfulness the past, the present, and the future.” (3.36)

Urged by his advisors, he did finally order an army to march north to protect Italy against Vespasian. Meanwhile, Vespasian’s brother, who lived in Rome, tried to begin negotiations with Vitellius. But he was attacked and took refuge on the Capitoline Hill. Vitellius’ men continued their assault and, in the process, burned the Temple of Jupiter to the ground — a great sacrilege, for the temple was one of the oldest and most sacred sites for Romans:

“This was the most deplorable and disgraceful event that had happened to the Commonwealth of Rome since the foundation of the city; for now, assailed by no foreign enemy, with Heaven ready to be propitious, had our vices only allowed, the seat of Jupiter Supremely Good and Great, founded by our ancestors with solemn auspices to be the pledge of Empire, the seat, which neither Porsenna, when the city was surrendered, nor the Gauls, when it was captured, had been able to violate, was destroyed by the madness of our Emperors” (3.72)

Vespasian’s brother was captured and executed, which effectively cut off all hope of negotiation with Vespasian. Although Vespasian himself was still in Egypt, generals loyal to him arrived in northern Italy and encountered Vitellius’ armies. The city of Cremona, which had been established as a defensive bulwark against Hannibal during the days of the Punic wars, centuries earlier, was destroyed. The emperor’s forces were failing, but Vitellius was indolent:

“The Emperor’s ears were so formed, that all profitable counsels were offensive to him, and that he would hear nothing but what would please and ruin.” (3.56)

To the astonishment of the Roman people, on 18 December 69 Vitellius abdicated the throne in an official announcement, but then, instead of retiring to private life, returned to live in the imperial palace. With little taste for ambiguity, Vespasian’s forces arrived in Rome a few days later, seized Vitellius, and executed him in the Roman Forum. Vespasian, though absent, was declared emperor, the fourth in less than 12 months. There followed a frenzy of violence in the city that surpassed anything the Romans had seen in many years:

“When Vitellius was dead, the war had indeed come to an end, but peace had yet to begin. Sword in hand, throughout the capital, the conquerors hunted down the conquered with merciless hatred. The streets were choked with carnage, the squares and temples reeked with blood, for men were massacred everywhere as chance threw them in the way. Soon, as their license increased, they began to search for and drag forth hidden foes. Whenever they saw a man tall and young they cut him down, making no distinction between soldiers and civilians. But the ferocity, which in the first impulse of hatred could be gratified only by blood, soon passed into the greed of gain. They let nothing be kept secret, nothing be closed; Vitellianists, they pretended, might be thus concealed. Here was the first step to breaking open private houses; here, if resistance were made, a pretext for slaughter. The most needy of the populace and the most worthless of the slaves did not fail to come forward and betray their wealthy masters; others were denounced by friends. Everywhere were lamentations, and wailings, and all the miseries of a captured city, till the license of the Vitellianist and Othonianist soldiery, once so odious, was remembered with regret. The leaders of the party, so energetic in kindling civil strife, were incapable of checking the abuse of victory. In stirring up tumult and strife the worst men can do the most, but peace and quiet cannot be established without virtue.” (4.1)

When Vespasian did finally arrive in the city, he re-established law and order. Tacitus describes him in this way:

“Vespasian was an energetic soldier; he could march at the head of his army, choose the place for his camp, and bring by night and day his skill, or, if the occasion required, his personal courage to oppose the foe. His food was such as chance offered; his dress and appearance hardly distinguished him from the common soldier; in short, but for his avarice, he was equal to the generals of old.” (2.5)

The Romans always loved a ruler with a distinguished military record, and Vespasian fit the bill. He was comparatively moderate in his governance. Purges of enemies were common in Roman history following transfers of power, and Vespasian, too, “cleaned house,” but he did so more on the basis of character than of political allegiance. Those whom he considered to have acted faithfully and honestly, regardless of which side they had taken in the civil war, he elevated; those whom he deemed unreliable or malicious were exiled or executed. He undertook major building projects in the city, rebuilding the Temple of Jupiter, and, down the road, beginning construction on an amphitheatre that would become one of the most famous buildings in the world. And his policies seem to have been largely successful, for he remained in power for a decade, and, through his two sons, Titus and Domitian, established a new imperial dynasty that was to rule Rome until 96 AD.

**

A year before he became emperor, Vespasian had been in Judaea attempting to put an end to a rebellion among the Jews. When he departed for Rome, he left his son Titus in charge of the operation. Tacitus gives us some background on the conflict, and, in a fascinating section (5.2-5), provides a brief anthropological introduction to the Jewish people. This must be taken with some reservations, for it is obvious that he dislikes them intensely, but it is still interesting. He notes their Sabbath observance, use of unleavened bread, circumcision, and, of course, monotheism, which was a continual source of friction between the Jews and Rome. He sees their unwillingness to pay worship to the emperor as an impiety, a determination “to despise all gods, to disown their country”, and he finds their conception of God peculiar:

“The Jews have purely mental conceptions of Deity, as one in essence. They call those profane who make representations of God in human shape out of perishable materials. They believe that Being to be supreme and eternal, neither capable of representation, nor of decay. They therefore do not allow any images to stand in their cities, much less in their temples. This flattery is not paid to their kings, nor this honour to our Emperors.”

Early in Book 5 he describes how Titus drew up his forces and began a siege of Jerusalem, but unfortunately that is where it ends, for the rest of the Histories is lost. We know what happened, of course: the city was taken, the Temple was destroyed, and the Jewish people were scattered throughout the world, an event of incalculable importance to world history.

**

So ends my voyage through the principal historical works of Tacitus. He is a fine historian, with a blunt and manly style, a commitment to sifting truth from fiction, and a talent for forthright moral judgment. It is true that the most important events that occurred in the Empire during the period he covered – the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, and the founding of the Christian religion – were almost entirely missed, and he certainly did not appreciate their importance for Rome and for the world. Nonetheless, as an imperial historian of the first century, though he has rivals, he has no betters, and I have greatly enjoyed reading him.


Feast of the Annunciation, 2021

March 25, 2021

With the Annunciation this year in such close proximity to Holy Week, let’s hear a beautiful pre-Reformation poem on the Seven Last Words of Christ, which begins “Mary, full of virtue, pity and grace…”. The full text can be read here. This musical setting is by Robert Fayrfax, an astonishingly great composer whose 500th anniversary we are marking this year; the score can be read here. The ensemble in this video is the Tallis Scholars.

A happy and blessed feast to all!


Josquin polyphonissimus

March 19, 2021

Continuing my observance of the Josquin anniversary year I’ve been listening through his motets, and this week came to the mighty Qui habitat, written for 24 voices. To write for such a large number of parts was rare for him, and I wish I knew more about the circumstances for which it was composed. It’s a beautiful piece, like eavesdropping on the angelic choirs around the heavenly throne.

Here is a nice video performance of the piece by Kammerchor Josquin des Prez. The musical texture is fairly static, as though time has stopped, and we hear only the voices cascading over one another in repeated patterns. But as the piece unfolds you’ll hear that the texture does change as the material migrates through pitch ranges. (Following along with the score is rewarding.) Only in the last few minutes does he bring in all 24 voices simultaneously.


Hardy: The Return of the Native

March 13, 2021

The Return of the Native
Thomas Hardy
(Modern Library, 1950) [1878]
507 p.

In his previous novel, Far From the Madding Crowd, Hardy had explored the complexities of finding a suitable match in marriage, and the unruliness of passion. Many of the same themes arise in The Return of the Native, though masterfully etched in darker hues, for whereas in the earlier novel a happy marriage was still the telos of the tale, here marriage is portrayed as an impediment to happiness and an occasion for hypocrisy, deception, and betrayal.

The story circles around Eustacia Vye, a young woman of exceptional beauty and allure whose very presence inflames the destructive passions of the men around her, like a goddess of tragic love shedding discord in hearts as she moves through the world. Hardy, in fact, portrays her, in a remarkable, extended portrait, as a pagan goddess:

Her presence brought memories of such things as Bourbon roses, rubies, and tropical midnight; her moods recalled lotus-eaters and the march in Athalie; her motions, the ebb and flow of the sea; her voice, the viola. In a dim light, and with a slight rearrangement of her hair, her general figure might have stood for that of either of the higher female deities. The new moon behind her head, an old helmet upon it, a diadem of accidental dewdrops round her brow, would have been adjuncts sufficient to strike the note of Artemis, Athena, or Hera respectively, with as close an approximation to the antique as that which passes muster on many respected canvases.

But celestial imperiousness, love, wrath, and fervour had proved to be somewhat thrown away on netherward Egdon. Her power was limited, and the consciousness of this limitation had biassed her development. Egdon was her Hades, and since coming there she had imbibed much of what was dark in its tone, though inwardly and eternally unreconciled thereto. Her appearance accorded well with this smouldering rebelliousness, and the shady splendour of her beauty was the real surface of the sad and stifled warmth within her. A true Tartarean dignity sat upon her brow, and not factitiously or with marks of constraint, for it had grown in her with years. (I, 7)

Paired with her, as a foil, in the village on Egdon Heath, is the sensible and good-natured Thomasin, who exerts a quite different and healthier kind of influence on the eligible young men. Chief among the latter are two: Wildeve, a man whose name is no accident, and Yeobright, an Egdon native — in fact, the native of the novel’s title — who has returned after a sojourn of some years in Paris to take up a life among his own friends and neighbours once more. His return disturbs the status quo in Egdon, setting in motion the events that eventually lead — this is a Hardy novel — to disaster.

This disaster is caused, in part, by a particular act of Yeobright, understandable and defensible in itself, but done in anger and soon regretted, and I was struck by his words when the consequences of his act were finally evident: “My great regret is that for what I have done no man or law can punish me!” Here again we meet, as we did recently in Heywood’s play, the human need to atone for wrongdoing, and the paradoxical burden that is imposed on the soul by freedom from punishment.

I remarked in my notes on Far From the Madding Crowd that Hardy’s prose had a consistent tendency to objectify his characters, to describe them in impersonal, scientific terms, and that this, though disturbing in itself, produced an effective minor-key harmonization with his grim fatalism. It was interesting to discover that this tendency is not noticeably present in The Return of the Native, and has been replaced instead with a subtle and dark supernaturalism that is, however, at least as effective a conveyance for the dark forces riding roughshod through this world of Egdon Heath. I’ve already illustrated the way in which he uses pagan imagery to describe his characters; the Heath itself is a quasi-pagan setting, desolate and wild, with no church as far as I could tell; the main festivities celebrated here involve burning pyres atop hillocks. In one startling scene a character actually utters a curse — “It was a strange jargon—the Lord’s Prayer repeated backwards—the incantation usual in proceedings for obtaining unhallowed assistance against an enemy” — that, on a straightforward reading, is directly effective. Reading a bit of commentary on the novel I find that Hardy intentionally structured it in five acts, observing the classical unities of time and place, to make of his book something like a novelization of a classical tragedy, all of which is as interesting, formally, as unexpected.

This classical structure is less evident than it might be because Hardy, in a concession to the publishers, added a sixth section in which the tragic peroration with which he had originally planned to end the novel was succeeded by an epilogue in which the two most likeable characters were granted a happy ending. He apparently came to regret this, and he had a point; from this distance, whatever commercial interests might have been involved can only seem an intrusion upon artistic integrity. Not that I minded the happy ending myself.


Tourneur: The Atheist’s Tragedy

February 27, 2021

The Atheist’s Tragedy
Cyril Tourneur
(Vizetilly, 1888) [c.1611]
98 p.

A play so named would seem to have a wide scope to explore: the tragedy of living in a cosmos bereft of objective goodness; the agony of the reign of will and power over truth; the madness of a rational creature in a world dissolved of intelligible natures; the absence of final justice in a world plagued by injustice; the loneliness of a being endowed with powers of love and reason adrift in infinite silence and empty darkness.

But we are here in the seventeenth century, not the twentieth, and our playwright is not Beckett but one Cyril Tourneur, a contemporary of Shakespeare whose modest legacy for the stage includes this play and, perhaps, one other.

The play focuses on the Machiavellian ambitions of a French nobleman called D’Amville, whose schemes to overthrow and assume the power of his elder brother wreak destruction on everyone who comes within range. D’Amville is an atheist, which for Tourneur seems mostly to have meant that he lived for pleasure rather than principle:

D’Am. Then, if Death casts up
Our total sum of joy and happiness,
Let me have all my senses feasted in
The abundant fulness of delight at once,
And, with a sweet insensible increase
Of pleasing surfeit, melt into my dust.

and that he believed in Fate rather than a personal Providence:

And I am of a confident belief
That even the time, place, manner of our deaths
Do follow Fate with that necessity
That makes us sure to die. (I, 2)

Just what is meant by Fate here is unclear, but in another place he relates Fate to the realm of human power and actions, saying, of a pile of gold coins,

These are the stars, the ministers of Fate,
And man’s high wisdom the superior power
To which their forces are subordinate. (V, 1)

In other words, he acknowledges no power higher than his own. Interestingly, we are told that he became an atheist, or perhaps was simply confirmed in disbelief, by the hypocrisy of churchmen:

D’Am. Borachio, didst precisely note this man?

Bor. His own profession would report him pure.

D’Am. And seems to know if any benefit
Arises of religion after death.
Yet but compare’s profession with his life;—
They so directly contradict themselves,
As if the end of his instructions were
But to divert the world from sin, that he
More easily might ingross it to himself.
By that I am confirmed an atheist.
(I, 2)

which is all too plausible. (The specific churchman in question here, a parody on a Puritan divine, turns out to be a lecherous candlemaker masquerading as a churchman.)

Be that as it may, D’Amville sets about murdering his brother, disinheriting his nephew and spoiling his engagement, on one hand, and, on the other, enriching himself, forging advantageous marriages for his sons, and then trying to rape their fiancées — all the things you’d expect an amoral French baron to do. Violence, greed, and lust run amok until by a series of chances — if they are chances — they bring about the downfall of D’Amville and all his ambitions. He suffers the indignity of undergoing one of the least dignified deaths one could imagine, accidentally hitting himself with an executioner’s axe seized in a moment of murderous rage. Says the executioner:

Exe. In lifting up the axe
I think he’s knocked his brains out. (V, 2)

It would take a good actor to deliver those lines without them being comedic, I would think, and this at the tragic climax, which perhaps hints at Tourneur’s limitations as a dramatist.

The secondary focus of the play is a love affair between D’Amville’s to-be-disinherited-or-murdered nephew, Charlemont, and a young woman called Castabella. Although they are secondary to the plot, they are central to the play’s heart, and Tourneur lavishes wonderful lines on them. Consider this passage, in which Charlemont, preparing to depart to battle, and having bidden farewell to his family, now turns to Castabella:

Charl. My noble mistress, this accompliment
Is like an elegant and moving speech,
Composed of many sweet persuasive points,
Which second one another, with a fluent
Increase and confirmation of their force,
Reserving still the best until the last,
To crown the strong impulsion of the rest
With a full conquest of the hearer’s sense;
Because the impression of the last we speak
Doth always longest and most constantly
Possess the entertainment of remembrance.
So all that now salute my taking leave
Have added numerously to the love
Wherewith I did receive their courtesy.
But you, dear mistress, being the last and best
That speaks my farewell, like the imperious close
Of a most sweet oration, wholly have
Possessed my liking, and shall ever live
Within the soul of my true memory.
So, mistress, with this kiss I take my leave.
(I, 2)

That is really lovely, and an oration containing a simile comparing an oration to an oration is rather entertaining!

I quite enjoyed, overall, the qualities of Tourneur’s verse, which is admirably clear and musical. In the first pages of this play I came upon this speech in which Charlemont’s father tries to dissuade him from going to war:

Mont. I prithee, let this current of my tears
Divert thy inclination from the war,
For of my children thou art only left
To promise a succession to my house.
And all the honour thou canst get by arms
Will give but vain addition to thy name;
Since from thy ancestors thou dost derive
A dignity sufficient, and as great
As thou hast substance to maintain and bear.
I prithee, stay at home.
(I, 1)

I knew then that I was in good hands. Or, to take another passage that I marked as I was reading, consider this outpouring of grief as an unfaithful wife, repentant, laments over the body of her dead husband:

Dear husband, let
Not thy departed spirit be displeased
If with adulterate lips I kiss thy cheek.
Here I behold the hatefulness of lust,
Which brings me kneeling to embrace him dead
Whose body living I did loathe to touch.
Now I can weep. But what can tears do good
When I weep only water, they weep blood.
But could I make an ocean with my tears
That on the flood this broken vessel of
My body, laden heavy with light lust,
Might suffer shipwreck and so drown my shame.
Then weeping were to purpose, but alas!
The sea wants water enough to wash away
The foulness of my name. O! in their wounds
I feel my honour wounded to the death. (IV, 5)

Compelling imagery and neat compression of thought combine here to create really effective, and affecting, verse. Mind you, there are some infelicities here and there too. I’ve already mentioned the tonally awkward lines around the death of D’Amville. I also laughed at this fungal simile:

The love of a woman is like a mushroom,—it grows in one night and will serve somewhat pleasingly next morning to breakfast, but afterwards waxes fulsome and unwholesome. (IV.5)

I have to be careful, I suppose, to acknowledge comedy — of which there is a good deal in this tragedy — where it appears. There are awkward points in the plotting, too, as characters come and go to, it seems, little or no purpose at times. But they did not, on the whole, greatly impair my enjoyment.

There are several elements of the plot that remind us of Hamlet, which Shakespeare had written about 10 years earlier. There is, for instance, a ghost of a murdered father, come back to ask his son to seek revenge on the murderous brother. (But he’s very much a Protestant ghost, not, it seems, confined to fast in fires.) And there is a graveyard scene in which the characters contemplate skulls, though with markedly less eloquence than did the sweet prince. I don’t know what to make of these parallels at all.

At play’s end, the atheist D’Amville lies dead, alongside many others, and Charlemont and Castabella are together, ready to live happily ever after. In an ultimate rejection of D’Amville’s philosophy, a judge upholds the triumph of Providence over the designs of men:

1st Judge. Strange is his death and judgment.
With the hands
Of joy and justice I thus set you free.
The power of that eternal providence
Which overthrew his projects in their pride
Hath made your griefs the instruments to raise
Your blessings to a higher height than ever.

Charl. Only to Heaven I attribute the work,
Whose gracious motives made me still forbear
To be mine own revenger. Now I see
That patience is the honest man’s revenge. (V, 2)

*

Tourneur is sometimes credited with writing another play, The Revenger’s Tragedy. When not attributed to him, it goes to Thomas Middleton. It is generally regarded as being superior to The Atheist’s Tragedy, and I intend to read it soon.


Josquin in Montréal

February 22, 2021

This year, as I’ve noted before, is a Josquin anniversary year. A few days ago I went fishing on YouTube for performances of his music, and I found this from a hometown team: Le studio de musique ancienne de Montréal singing his five-voice setting of Ave verum corpus [score]This is quiet, contemplative music, and if you’ve got seven minutes to spare I highly recommend it. It’s a sensitive and beautiful performance, gorgeously sung.


Tacitus: Annals

February 14, 2021

 

Annals
Tacitus
Translated from the Latin by Church and Brodribb
(Modern Library, 1942) [c.120]
416 p.

Much of what I have related and shall have to relate, may perhaps, I am aware, seem petty trifles to record. But no one must compare my annals with the writings of those who have described Rome in old days. They told of great wars, of the storming of cities, of the defeat and capture of kings, or whenever they turned by preference to home affairs, they related, with a free scope for digression, the strifes of consuls with tribunes, land and corn-laws, and the struggles between the commons and the aristocracy. My labours are circumscribed and inglorious; peace wholly unbroken or but slightly disturbed, dismal misery in the capital, an emperor careless about the enlargement of the empire, such is my theme. Still it will not be useless to study those at first sight trifling events out of which the movements of vast changes often take their rise.
(4.32)

Such is Tacitus’ modest appraisal of his achievement in this great history of the first-century Roman empire. The period in question, covering the years from the death of Augustus in 14 AD to the death of Nero in 68 AD, was a good deal more dramatic than he lets on here, replete with power struggles, wars, murders, and a cast of characters that has fascinated the world ever since. It was for Tacitus still relatively recent history, being no further from him than the First World War is from us, but he assures us early on that he has distance enough to be frank:

The histories of Tiberius, Gaius, Claudius, and Nero, while they were in power, were falsified through terror, and after their death were written under the irritation of a recent hatred. Hence my purpose is to relate a few facts about Augustus—more particularly his last acts, then the reign of Tiberius, and all which follows, without either bitterness or partiality, from any motives to which I am far removed.
(1.1)

His professed purpose in writing, which I have little reason to doubt, was, like Livy’s before him, a principally moral one:

This I regard as history’s highest function, to let no worthy action be uncommemorated, and to hold out the reprobation of posterity as a terror to evil words and deeds.
(3.65)

Both – the worthy actions, and the evil deeds – are readily supplied by the history he unfolds for us, though rather more of the latter. Without going into too much detail, let me sketch a basic outline of the sixteen books of the Annals.

*

When Augustus died, the empire had been relatively peaceful, and free from acute succession controversies, for decades. Tiberius was nobody’s first choice – maybe not even Tiberius’ — to become emperor upon Augustus’ passing, but all of the other leading candidates had died during their grooming, and so to Tiberius it fell. The early years of his reign were complicated by rebellions in outlying provinces, but the real danger was close to home. Tacitus relates, for instance, how Sejanus, the commander of the Praetorian Guard, turned his outfit, which was supposed to supply protection to the emperor, into a quiet threat, controlling not only access to the emperor, but also the emperor’s access to others. Sejanus eventually convinced Tiberius to move to the isle of Capri, where he largely, if tacitly, surrendered the power of governance to his keeper, whereupon “he plunged into every wickedness and disgrace, when fear and shame being cast off, he simply indulged his own inclinations” (6.51). Tacitus accuses Sejanus of poisoning Tiberius’ son, Drusus, and then of doing the same to others likely to succeed to the throne. But when he, a mere equestrian, proposed to marry Tiberius’ daughter-in-law, and so place himself in the line of succession, the game was up. Although the pages of Tacitus’ history narrating the fall of Sejanus are lost, we know from other sources that it was swift and brutal.

But it didn’t solve much. Sejanus’ successor, Macro, assumed a very similar role, and is actually credited by Tacitus with murdering Tiberius in 37 AD during a period of confusion about whether he was alive or not:

On the 15th of March, his breath failing, he was believed to have expired, and Caius Caesar was going forth with a numerous throng of congratulating followers to take the first possession of the empire, when suddenly news came that Tiberius was recovering his voice and sight, and calling for persons to bring him food to revive him from his faintness. Then ensued a universal panic, and while the rest fled hither and thither, every one feigning grief or ignorance, Caius Caesar, in silent stupor, passed from the highest hopes to the extremity of apprehension. Macro, nothing daunted, ordered the old emperor to be smothered under a huge heap of clothes, and all to quit the entrance-hall.
(6.50)

*

The “Caius Caesar” mentioned in this passage is known to us by his nickname, Caligula, a man with a reasonable claim to being the worst of the Roman emperors. Unfortunately, history has drilled a large hole in Tacitus’ account at this stage, with four full Books, covering the years 37-48 AD, lost. We are told only that he was “thoroughly ignorant and bred under the vilest training” (6.48).  We know from other sources that his short reign, of just four years, was one of scandal and depravity. He is, by reputation, the model of the mad tyrant. So bad did things become that in 41 AD a conspiracy formed and Caligula, just 28 years old, was stabbed to death.

*

During Caligula’s reign there had been fierce jockeying for the succession, with numerous candidates meeting untimely ends in the process. One man survived the process, largely because nobody thought he was capable of ruling; a man who had difficulty speaking, had no evident political ambitions, and seemed content to write scholarly works in retirement from public life. That man was Claudius, and he surprised everyone by becoming, in time, the best and most capable emperor since Augustus, and, in the judgment of some, one of the best and most capable of all. He quelled revolts, held a census (there were then 6 million Roman citizens), made legal reforms, and generally upheld order in public life. His private life, however, was another matter. His first wife, Agrippina, attempted a coup by publicly marrying another man and plotting to kill Claudius; she was executed. Claudius then decided to make a strategic marriage to re-unite the Julian and Claudian sides of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, which involved marrying his own niece, also called Agrippina, a decision that required “reform” of Rome’s incest laws and was extremely unpopular with the Roman people. Agrippina came to the marriage with two sons of her own, and did not conceal her wish that one of them succeed as emperor. In the year 54, she poisoned Claudius and got her wish.

*

The man who came to the throne, just 16 years old, was, sadly, Nero, a ruler not quite so bad as Caligula, but getting there. Tacitus describes him as vain, intemperate, effeminate, and, as he became older and realized the power he commanded, cruel and debauched:

It was commonly reported that snakes had been seen by his cradle, which they seemed to guard, a fabulous tale invented to match the marvels of other lands. Nero, never a disparager of himself, was wont to say that but one snake, at most, had been seen in his chamber.
(11.11)

One of his first acts as emperor was to kill his step-brother, Brittanicus, who was Claudius’ natural son and therefore a threat to Nero’s power. Not long after, he ordered the execution of his own mother, Agrippina, on trumped up charges – Tacitus speculates that he objected to her attempts to prevent an unsuitable marriage. In the course of time he would also be popularly attributed with the murder of his wife and unborn child. Meanwhile, he loved to sing – a particularly degrading pastime for Roman nobility – and embarrassed the senatorial class by his ventures onto the stage. He had, in his tutor and advisor, Seneca, one of the greatest Romans of the age, but it seemed to do him little good, and he “polluted himself by every lawful or lawless indulgence, […] not omitting a single abomination which could heighten his depravity” (15.37).

But the principal scandal of Nero’s reign centered on the Great Fire of Rome. It happened in 64 AD, and damaged or destroyed much of Rome, including a large swathe of the city centre. Tacitus tells us that Nero was away from the city at the time, and that upon his return he dispensed funds to those who had suffered damages. But rumours circulated that when he had learned that the city was aflame he had taken the opportunity to sing of the destruction of Troy, and this hardened the hearts of the Romans. Adding insult to injury, Nero seized upon Rome’s blasted centre to realize one of his grandiose architectural dreams: an immense palace for himself, the Domus Aurea, built on the ruins of the fire.

Rumours then went from bad to worse, and stories circulated that Nero had himself ordered the fire. At this point, Nero himself, says Tacitus, commissioned a counter-rumour in which he tried to pin the fire on a group widely despised in the city: the Christians.

But all human efforts, all the lavish gifts of the emperor, and the propitiations of the gods, did not banish the sinister belief that the conflagration was the result of an order. Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judæa, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind.
(15.44)

This is one of the earliest non-Christian sources to mention Christianity, and it already tells us quite a bit: there were enough Christians in Rome for them to have been recognized as a distinct group, and they were roundly disliked. It also provides independent confirmation of details of the Biblical accounts of Christ’s crucifixion, such as it having taken place under the watch of Pontius Pilate. Both St Peter and St Paul were in Rome at the time of the fire, and both were martyred in the bloody aftermath of Nero’s slander, in which many Christians lost their lives – so many, and so brutally, Tacitus tells us, that the Roman people were moved to pity:

Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired. Nero offered his gardens for the spectacle, and was exhibiting a show in the circus, while he mingled with the people in the dress of a charioteer or stood aloft on a car. Hence, even for criminals who deserved extreme and exemplary punishment, there arose a feeling of compassion; for it was not, as it seemed, for the public good, but to glut one man’s cruelty, that they were being destroyed.
(15.44)

It wasn’t enough to save Nero, either. He survived a few more years, discovered an extensive conspiracy against his life, continued to fall in the public’s estimation, and, finally, awoke one night in his Domus Aurea to find his guard had abandoned him. The game was up, and he committed suicide. He had no heir, and his death marked the end of the Julio-Claudian dynasty that had begun a little over a century earlier with Julius Caesar. It was not obvious who would next wear the laurels, and the next year of Roman life – 69 AD – is known to history as “the year of four emperors”, as a violent, high-stakes battle for power in Rome played out. But that is the story of Tacitus’ Histories, and that is a story for another time.

*

We don’t actually learn of Nero’s suicide from Tacitus, because the pages covering the final two years of his reign are lost. This problem has come up a few times above; altogether, roughly one-quarter of the work has been lost, which is a pity. It is sobering to consider that portions of The Annals that we do have survived into the present in a single manuscript! Books 11-16 were preserved in Monte Cassino Abbey, and Books 1-6 at Corvey Abbey. The work has a remarkable history.

*

Tacitus appears to be writing self-consciously in the tradition of Livy. Like Livy, his history is annalistic – hence its name, of course – covering events on a year-by-year basis. Like Livy, he has a particular interest in military affairs, but, given that his period offered relatively little on that front, he dwells mostly on the politics of the imperial court. He also takes time each year to recount local gossip: notorious crimes, scandalous affairs, important trials, ominous portents, and notable deaths. His consistency in this regard gives his work a comforting rhythm.

*

I cited above his wish, as historian, “to let no worthy action be uncommemorated”, and sadly his subject matter provided few occasions. But there was one man whose story satisfied the need: Germanicus. Born in about 15 BC, he was the nephew of Tiberius. When Tiberius came to power Germanicus was about 30 years old, and he was sent to Germany to handle the Germanic tribes who were giving trouble to the Romans. A few years previously the Romans had suffered as their hands one of the worst defeats in their history at the Battle of Teutoberg Forest, in which three Roman legions had been ambushed and slaughtered by forces led by one Arminius, a Germanic prince raised in Rome, who had attained Roman citizenship and even achieved equestrian status, before betraying Rome and handing her a humiliating defeat.

Tactius describes movingly the arrival of Germanicus at Teutoberg Forest, now 5 or 6 years after the defeat, and the grisly discoveries he made:

In the centre of the field were the whitening bones of men, as they had fled, or stood their ground, strewn everywhere or piled in heaps. Near, lay fragments of weapons and limbs of horses, and also human heads, prominently nailed to trunks of trees. In the adjacent groves were the barbarous altars, on which they had immolated tribunes and first-rank centurions.
(1.61)

The Romans gathered the remains of their countrymen to give them honourable rites, and then prepared to fight the Germans again. On the night before the attack, Tacitus gives us this marvellous account of Germanicus’ doings:

At nightfall, leaving his tent of augury by a secret exit, unknown to the sentries, with one companion, his shoulders covered with a wild beast’s skin, he visited the camp streets, stood by the tents, and enjoyed the men’s talk about himself, as one extolled his noble rank, another, his handsome person, nearly all of them, his endurance, his gracious manner and the evenness of his temper, whether he was jesting or was serious, while they acknowledged that they ought to repay him with their gratitude in battle, and at the same time sacrifice to a glorious vengeance the perfidious violators of peace.
(2.13)

If that doesn’t send a thrill down your spine, I don’t know what to say. It’s Henry V at Agincourt! There can’t be any doubt about it.

Germanicus was an able general – a quality always beloved by the Roman people – and Tacitus has nothing but good to say of him, painting him as brave and eloquent and capable and good-natured: “He was indeed a young man of unaspiring temper, and of wonderful kindliness” (1.33).

Returning in triumph from Germany, he was sent to manage complicated diplomatic and military matters in the east, and then to Egypt. His popularity grew greatly – too much, in fact – and in 19 AD he died suddenly, a suspected poisoning. Tacitus blames Tiberius and his circle for ordering the murder in an attempt to ward off a challenge from a too-beloved rival to power. Disgusted by this turn of events, Tacitus gives Germanicus this final encomium, comparing him to none other than Alexander the Great:

Germanicus was gracious to his friends, temperate in his pleasures, the husband of one wife, with only legitimate children. He was too no less a warrior, though rashness he had none, and, though after having cowed Germany by his many victories, he was hindered from crushing it into subjection. Had he had the sole control of affairs, had he possessed the power and title of a king, he would have attained military glory as much more easily as he had excelled Alexander in clemency, in self-restraint, and in all other virtues.
(2.73)

He is the hero of this tale.

*

There are other aspects of this great work that I could mention – the potted history of Roman law (3.26-29), the difficulties the Romans had with the tribes in far-off Brittania (Book 14), the farcical attempt to drain the malaria-ridden Fucine Lake (12.56-57), for example. But I grow weary in my toils, and this seems a not inappropriate time to draw to a close.

After more than a year of loitering with the Roman poets of the Golden Age, it has been good to resume the historical narrative, and Tacitus has been a splendid guide. I’ll be turning next to his Histories, which cover the years immediately after the death of Nero.

***

[Laws and virtue]
Laws were most numerous when the commonwealth was most corrupt. (3.27)

[Changes, for good and ill]
Possibly there is in all things a kind of cycle, and there may be moral revolutions just as there are changes of seasons. Nor was everything better in the past, but our own age too has produced many specimens of excellence and culture for posterity to imitate. May we still keep up with our ancestors a rivalry in all that is honourable! (3.55)

[Can a gift be given?]
For benefits received are a delight to us as long as we think we can requite them; when that possibility is far exceeded, they are repaid with hatred instead of gratitude. (4.18)

[Point of no return]
Harmless measures were for the innocent. Crime once exposed had no refuge but in audacity. (11.26)


Middleton: A Mad World, My Masters

February 7, 2021

A Mad World, My Masters
Thomas Middleton
(Oxford, 2007) [c.1605]
37 p.

A young man disguises himself in order to rob his grandfather. A jealous husband keeps anxious watch over his unfaithful wife. An adulterous man is tempted by a succubus. A mother pimps out her daughter. And it all wraps up with a happy marriage, or the similitude of one.

Thomas Middleton’s A Mad World, My Masters is a swirling, lively comedy in which lust and greed run amok in the mad world. It’s a crazy, quasi-allegorical London on the stage, populated by characters bearing names like Penitent Brothel, Master Harebrain, Follywit, and Bounteous Progress. Trickery and subterfuge are the order of the day —

Who gets th’opinion for a virtuous name
May sin at pleasure, and ne’er think of shame
(I, i)

— right up to the last scene, in which Follywit, true to form, marries a blushing maiden (actually, a prostitute).

This is my first encounter with Middleton, a playwright who enjoyed a long and fruitful career in Jacobean London. T.S. Eliot, I am told, thought him the second playwright of London, and there are several references to Middleton’s works within Eliot’s poetry. I’m reserving my own judgment for the time being, but I enjoyed this play a great deal; it moves swiftly, and the plot, though suitably complicated, isn’t overly difficult to follow. I found the supernatural elements jarring, but entertaining too. The language of this play is seeded a-plenty with double-entendres, although I’d not have picked up on half of them without the notes.

His plays haven’t been staged very frequently in the last few hundred years — though some high profile companies have done them, to some acclaim. Middleton does interesting things with the staging that it would be fun to see realized. For instance, he makes use of [asides], as did other playwrights of his time and place, but here is a case in which, instead of holding up time for the aside to happen, he gives it the flavour of a distracted reverie, in which he loses track of what is going on around him:

HAREBRAIN: Call down your mistress to welcome these two gentlemen my friends.
RAFE: I shall, sir.
HAREBRAIN [aside]:I will observe her carriage and watch
The slippery revolutions of her eye.
I’ll lie in wait for every glance she gives
And poise her words i’th’ balance of suspect.
If she but swag she’s gone, either on this hand
Overfamiliar, or on this too neglectful.
It does behoove her carry herself even.
POSSIBILITY: But Master Harebrain —
HAREBRAIN:                    True, I hear you, sir.
Was’t you said?
POSSIBILITY:    I have not spoke it yet, sir.
HAREBRAIN:Right, so I say.
(III, i)

Well, I know what that feels like.

*

I’m going to read a few more plays by Middleton, including, I hope, some tragedies. For just $15, I find myself richly endowed with Middletoniana. You know how it goes: “I don’t have anything in my library by Thomas Middleton. I think it’s time I had everything by Thomas Middleton.” And if I should ever need to slay a burglar, or shore up the foundation of the house, I have a suitable object ready at hand.