Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Goddard on Tempest, Etc.

I've now acquired the second of the two volumes of Harold C. Goddard's commentary on Shakespeare (cf. link).  I have made it my bedtime reading and in this role, I can testify that it is at least as splendid as Goodnight Moon.  This second volume--I assume they were composed together as a set--has the same critical acuity, the same easy mastery, the same capacity to surprise, even on familiar territory, that mark this again as a classic in Shakespeare studies.

One of the many virtues of this set is Goddard's capacity not merely to understand individual plays, but to draw comparisons and contrasts between various points in Shakespeare's career.  He remarks, for example, that "in no other play of Shakespeare's are there so many premonitions of later ones as in The Two Gentlemen of Verona."  I guess I had kind of known that although I certainly couldn't have developed the point as insightfully as Goddard does.

But I don't think I had grasped how, if Two Gents looks forward in Shakespeare's career, then Twelfth Night looks back.  "It is as if  Shakespeare," Goddard observes, "for his last unadulterated comedy, summoned he ghosts of a dozen characters and situations with which he had triumphed in the past and bade them weave themselves into a fresh pattern."   And I certainly hadn't seen that Cymbeline, all the way over at the far end of Shakespeare's working life, "is Shakespeare's most recapitulatory play.  It does for a large number of his works what Twelfth Night does for the earlier Comedies: echoes them while remaining completely sui generis. It exceeds even Troilus and Cressida in defying classification ..."  Here is a fuller, and yet more specific, exposition of the same technique:

The opening scene of The Tempest—the shipwreck scene—is like an overture throughout which we catch echoes, like distant thunder, of the themes that dominated the historical and tragic music dramas of Shakespeare's earlier periods. It is an extraordinary epitome. “What cares these roarers for the name of king?” Into that question—or exclamation, if you will—the disdainful Boatswain condenses not only King Lear but all that Shakespeare ever said on the subject of worldly place and power. Here are a group of “great ones”—from king down—up against it. “The king and prince at prayers!” The mingled surprise humor, and consternation in the words of old Gonzalo say it all. When kings and princes re reduced to prayer, then in deed is the day of doom near. The roaring Boatswain—a kind of emancipated and active twin to Barnardine in Measure for Measure— is the one man who shines in this crisis, his combined cheerfulness, energy, resourcefulness and contempt being just the brew needed in the situation. Even the master of the boat relies on him to carry ship, mariners, passengers, and master himself through on his lone shoulders. Emergencies crown their own kings. As the Bastard in needed no title in King John, so this man can stand on his own feet. Nature hands him the command and everybody of any account concurs.
Except that Goddard, having situated the play (and not incidentally clarified our understanding of other plays) shifts almost effortlessly into a specific appreciation of The Tempest  itself; in particular an aspect that a thousand readers might pass by unnoticed:

Keep your cabins; you do assist the storm,” he orders his royal passengers. There is a symbolic diagnosis of war in eight words, with a prescription for peace thrown in. Let “great ones” go below and leave the decks to the boatswains and their mariners. It is still sound advice. Even the good Gonzalo, with his philosophy, strikes us as a bit superfluous at the moment. “You are a counsellor,” says the Boatswain; “if you can command these elements to silence, and work the peace of the present, we will not hand a rope more; use your authority....Cheerly, good hearts! Out of our way, I say.” Again Shakespeare amends Plato: not when philosophers are kings, but when boatswains are. William James declared that the best thing education can impart is the power to know a good man when you see him. In this case these scions of royalty are not educated, for all they can call the genius of the storm is bawling, blasphemous, incharitable dog, whoreson, insolent noisemaker, and cur.
And finally: "What fools! What a man! What a scene!"  Indeed.  And what a book.

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