06. Pericles, by William Shakespeare

I like Pericles. A lot of people don’t, or find its weirdness too weird, its lacunae and unreliability and dreaminess offputting. It is weird and unreliable and dreamy, but those, I think, aren’t bad things. Of all the plays Shakespeare had a hand in, surely the odd ones, the ones that don’t totally work or don’t work the way you think they should, are the ones we ought to be most interested in.

Pericles is particularly interesting for a lot of reasons, not least because Shakespeare is thought to have collaborated fairly heavily on it. His co-writer has been identified as a playwright called George Wilkins who was artistically active only for about three years, writing more or less competent comedies, and then spent most of the rest of his life as a pimp. He does not appear to have been a terribly nice man (Mark Haddon’s recent novel, The Porpoise, which takes inspiration from Pericles, deals with Wilkins in a most satisfactory manner). Most of Acts 1 and 2 are thought to be Wilkins’s, primarily because they’re the ones in which the verse (and the prose, frankly) is less impressive. Shakespeare’s influence allegedly begins in the Prologue to Act 3. If you’re paying attention, you can see it, I suppose, a difference in the quality of the verse; everything gets tighter, the scansion less limp, the rhymes more pungent. But then that might easily be confirmation bias. It doesn’t feel like crossing a Rubicon of any kind. The improvement is noticeable, but not jarring.

One of the other tricky things about Pericles is the state of the text we have, which is shocking. Publishing an edition of the play is a question of reconstructing–sometimes just guessing–what might be meant by lines that are often punctuated in a way that renders them nonsensical, have too many syllables to fit the metrical scheme (or too few), and sometimes just don’t exist. (There’s a gap of probably three or four lines at one point that no one has been able to fill.) General academic opinion is that the text was recounted from memory by one or two of the actors who’d performed the play (one of them might have been the boy who played Marina, Pericles’s daughter): they were probably trying to sell it to a publisher, somewhat unscrupulously, because theaters closed for a year, thanks to the plague, almost immediately after Pericles‘s first performance. They were hungry.

The point is that Pericles is not one of the more accessible of Shakespeare’s plays. Even if a theatrical ensemble can get past the textual problems, and can make the less impressive prosody sound convincing, it is odd. Bouncing from location to location, it follows Pericles as he 1) flees the wrath of a provincial governor who, it turns out, is sleeping with his own daughter; 2) wins the hand of another princess in a tournament; 3) marries, impregnates, and is immediately shipwrecked with said princess, who gives birth to their daughter and promptly dies; 4) leaves his newborn daughter with the governor of another city-state while he returns to Tyre to take up his throne upon the death of his father; 5) forgets to come back for her for the next fourteen years; 6) returns for her after fourteen years only to be told that she’s died [she hasn’t]; 7) after quite a lot of faff and much mourning, is reunited with her in a different city, as well as 8) being reunited with his wife, who isn’t actually dead and has been working as a priestess of Diana all this time. That is A Lot. There is also a chorus figure, who represents the medieval poet John Gower (which is something that doesn’t happen in any other Shakespeare play: a named individual functioning as a chorus between scenes). If what you want is something with a clear narrative trajectory, at least one memorable speech, some naughty jokes, and either a wholesome group marriage scene or a cathartic tableau of dead dramatis personae at the end, do not go to Pericles for it.

If, on the other hand, you are willing to take it for whatever it is, there’s a lot to be had. Most notably, it’s a play obsessively concerned about incest: it’s the opening impetus for Pericles’s flight when he uncovers it in a rival court, it’s a tension when he first meets his wife (whose father is, to everyone’s relief, a doting and appropriate parent keen to settle her in marriage), there’s the constant threat of it when he first meets his daughter, whom he doesn’t recognize. The whole play is overshadowed by the representation of deviant, non-generative sexuality, sexuality that, instead of allowing for growth and forward movement, curls back in on itself like a snake eating its tail. Fathers and daughters must be parted; even as Shakespeare and Wilkins bring Pericles and Marina back together at the end, their reunion is only possible because Marina has caught the eye of a handsome and wealthy young man outside of the family grouping, a socially appropriate match. There’s more to this–the father/daughter relationship and controlling interest in adolescent female sexuality is reminiscent of The Tempest; the lost/not lost wife subplot appears again in The Winter’s Tale–and if you’re at all interested in Shakespeare, or even (especially) if you think that he’s overtaught and overpraised and has nothing more to surprise you with, give Pericles a go.


Pericles was probably written in 1607 or 1608. My copy is the Arden Shakespeare 2nd edition, edited and introduced by Suzanne Gossett and published in 2004.

2016 In First Lines

I did a post like this two years ago, and forgot to repeat it last year. (Don’t worry; there’ll still be a good end-of-year roundup!) These are the opening lines of the first book I’ve read each month, with a little bit about said book, and what I thought of it. Reach for your TBR lists now, because most of these were great.

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January: “Inspired by Beyoncé, I stallion-walk to the toaster.” – American Housewife, by Helen Ellis. This somewhat manic collection of short stories, some very short indeed, tackles domestic femininity, pop culture, and societal double standards. It’s a little like a book version of Lucille from Arrested Development, delivering tart one-liners and clutching a martini. I didn’t love it, but I can respect what it was doing.

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February: “Enoch rounds the corner just as the executioner raises the noose above the woman’s head.” – Quicksilver, by Neal Stephenson. Book one of Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle—one of my favourite reading experiences this year—wherein we meet erstwhile member of the Royal Society Daniel Waterhouse, and follow him on the beginning of his mission to reconcile Newton and Leibniz.

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March: “I looked like a girl you’d expect to see on a city bus, reading some clothbound book from the library about plants or geography, perhaps wearing a net over my light brown hair.” – Eileen, by Ottessa Moshfegh. Nyer nyer, I read it before it was longlisted for the Booker Prize. Highsmith-esque noir plotting meets serious psychological ishoos; Eileen is an unforgettable character.

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April: “My name is Sister.” – Daughters of the North (published in the UK as The Carhullan Army), by Sarah Hall. An absolute belter of a book that takes the ideas of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and pushes them further, to more interesting places, than Atwood ever does. Another of 2016’s highlights.

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May: “They used to hang men at Four Turnings in the old days.” – My Cousin Rachel, by Daphne du Maurier. Start as you mean to go on, Daphne: ominous as all hell. This tale of a femme fatale—maybe—and a hapless young man—maybe—is an ideal stepping stone to the rest of du Maurier’s work after Rebecca.

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June: “In 1972 Spring Hill was as safe a neighbourhood as you could find near an East Coast city, one of those instant subdivisions where brick split-levels and two-car garages had been planted like cabbages on squares of quiet green lawn.” – A Crime in the Neighbourhood, by Suzanne Berne. What I loved about this book was how adroitly Berne makes us sympathise with a kid who does a cruel and terrible thing: how completely we enter her head.

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July: “When it began, it began as an opera would begin, in a palace, at a ball, in an encounter with a stranger who, you discover, has your fate in his hands.” – The Queen of the Night, by Alexander Chee. I’ve raved about Chee’s book here before. Opulent, atmospheric, full of detail: it’s not only a great summer holiday read, but would make a great Christmassy one, too.

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August: “That day I woke up from a dream the way I always woke up: pressed against my mom’s back, my face against her and hers turned away.” – The Mare, by Mary Gaitskill. A raw and absorbing book about Velveteen Vargas, a Dominican teenager, and the world of horse-riding to which she’s exposed during a Fresh Air Fund trip. How Gaitskill inhabits her characters so faithfully is beyond me, but I’m not complaining.

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September: “I liked hurting girls.” – Diary of an Oxygen Thief, by Anonymous. One of the less impressive books I’ve read this year, in all honesty (and perhaps unsurprisingly, given that opening gambit). More on that in an end-of-year post.

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October: “One afternoon on a weekend in March, Dewi Ayu rose from her grave after being dead for twenty-one years.” – Beauty Is a Wound, by Eka Kurniawan. I was initially bowled over by this book, but Didi’s comments made me look at its use of sexual violence afresh, and I was a bit less pleased with it after that.

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November: “On my 18th birthday my Uncle Keith took me to see Charlie Girl, starring the one and only Joe Brown, who I was in love with and was very much hoping to marry.” – Where Do Little Birds Go, by Camilla Whitehill. Whitehill’s words, plus the acting of Jessica Butcher in the production that I saw, combine to make this one-woman show about exploitation and power dynamics in the Kray twins’ London one of the best plays I’ve seen this year.

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December: “There is a boy.” – Signs for Lost Children, by Sarah Moss. Moss’s latest novel, The Tidal Zone, was the first of hers I’ve read, but I honestly think Signs for Lost Children is better: in the late 1800s, Tom Cavendish and Ally Moberley, recently married, are separated by Tom’s engineering work, which takes him to Japan for a span of months. While he is gone, Ally, a qualified doctor, works at Truro women’s asylum. In each other’s absence, both of them must face their fears and, eventually, trust each other again.

So! What do these say about my reading this year? (Well, this year so far; December has hardly started.) Two-thirds of these titles are by female authors, though I went through phases of reading mostly men, then mostly women. None of the authors of colour I’ve read this year are represented, which suggests the limitations of this method (showcasing only the first book read in each month). Nor are the genres, which included a little more sci fi, fantasy, memoir and short story collections. What this selection does suggest, though, is that this was a good year for reading. There were very few books I didn’t enjoy at all, and many that I truly adored.

Soon to come: my top books of 2016, or The Year In Reading, to be followed by the year’s dishonourable mentions.

November Superlatives

I’ve sort of forgotten about the end of November. It seems to have been an infinite month, on and on and on, late nights, late shifts, weekends alone or away. It doesn’t feel like the end of anything, especially given that things are only going to get busier at the pub from now until New Year. I’ve read twelve books this month, though—some of them quite long. I won’t lie, there was definitely some post-election comfort reading going on.

most disproportionately affecting: By size, I mean. The playscript for Camilla Whitehill’s play Where Do Little Birds Go (which I reviewed at Litro) takes a quarter of an hour to read, but the play is haunting. A one-woman show that dramatises the experiences of Lucy Fuller, a barmaid kidnapped by the Kray twins in the 1960s, it’s spare, effective, and completely engrossing.

best glimpse of another world: Alfred Russel Wallace’s The Malay Archipelago, his writings about the years he spent in Southeast Asia collecting specimens of birds, insects and mammals. He’s thoughtful and reflective, but still a product of time; reading his ruminations about the “natural character” of the indigenous people is an insight into a mindset that may not be cruel but is still limited. His writings on landscape are beautiful.

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most obscurely disappointing: There is nothing at all wrong with Fiona Melrose’s debut novel Midwinter. I just wanted more… juice, I said to Rebecca when she reviewed it, though I’m not sure that’s the right word. The story of a father and son struggling with the decade-old loss of mother and wife Cessie, it’s a quiet novel about quiet men, whose thoughts Melrose infiltrates and describes fluently. The writing is good. I can’t complain about it. I think it has been the victim of Twitter hype.

most relevant: The Dark Circle, Linda Grant’s new novel, which takes in the beginnings of the NHS and the global social changes of the 1950s, and leaves us believing that the strength of the individual character is our best hope. I reviewed it just after the US election and was comforted by its vision of a new, happy, modern life, despite the constant presence of the past.

warm bath books: The US election was hard. I woke up at eight the morning after, checked my phone, and began to cry, at which point the Chaos made me return to bed. I cried and demanded to be held and cried some more, went back to sleep for a few hours, woke up, cried again. I was very glad I had the day off. I read the second and third of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy: The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass. It had been years since I’d read them and I was pleasantly surprised to find that they are not as intellectually antagonistic as I remembered; they are instead profoundly humane books, framing the human mind and human evolution as a source of wonder and power. They are soothing without being mindless or saccharine, and just about perfect.

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weirdest: I think Shena Mackay just writes weird books, and her novel Dunedin, though the first of hers that I’ve read, is probably pretty representative. It’s a split timeframe—the first half is set in nineteenth-century New Zealand; the second half follows the descendants of our original protagonists in southeast London—but the New Zealand bit is short-changed in the word count, and the plot of the south London bit has no obvious centre. She writes the same kind of tactile, color-and-light-filled prose as A.S. Byatt, though, so I liked it anyway.

most potential: This is, I admit, a backhanded compliment indeed. Stephanie Victoire’s debut story collection, The Other World, It Whispers, addresses issues of gender and sexuality through a fantasy lens that is fueled by a huge imagination. I also, unfortunately, found it under-edited and uneven. Swings and roundabouts…

second most potential: Wendy Jones’s collection of interviews with English women about their sex lives (helpfully entitled The Sex Lives of English Women) is, yes, totally fascinating. She has a decent spread of age, class, race and preferences—there is a 19-year-old devout Muslim, a 33-year-old ex-Buddhist nun, a 94-year-old former Land Girl who recalls having sex by the side of the road—but I wanted a little more structure; the chapters read as transcriptions of one half of a conversation, which is a bit disorienting, as it sometimes is in magazine interviews.

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best impulse buy: I’m not sure I’ve ever bought a book on the strength of one review, but I did it for Treasure Palaces: Great Writers Visit Great Museums, an anthology from The Economist whose subtitle tells you all you need to know. The museums range from the Pitt Rivers in Oxford to the Museum of Broken Relationships in Zagreb, via the Frick Collection, the ABBA Museum, Kelvingrove in Glasgow, and many more. The authors range from Frank Cottrell Boyce to Don Paterson, Ali Smith to Jacqueline Wilson. The essays are elegiac, descriptive, lyrical, hilarious, strange. A total treasure box.

best debut: Eric Beck Rubin’s novel School of Velocity, ONE Pushkin Press’s new release. The control Rubin exercises in this tale of charisma, friendship, music and obsession is worthy of a veteran novelist. I’m very interested to read his next book.

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big fat fucking awesome book: C.E. Morgan’s The Sport of Kings has divided opinion since its release. Me, I like it. A chunkster indeed, but its tale of Thoroughbred horse racing, interwoven with a Southern family saga and the attendant agonies of racial prejudice right through to the present day, makes it all forgivable: its flaws are immense because its ambitions are immense, as someone once said of Dickens. I read it on many trains over about three days, and was delighted to have had it with me to pass the time.

up next: I’m reading Sarah Moss’s Signs for Lost Children and loving it. I loved The Tidal Zone, so this is hardly surprising, but still.

 

The Gap of Time, by Jeanette Winterson

Forgiveness is a word like tiger–there’s footage of it and verifiably it exists but few of us have seen it close and wild or known it for what it is.

Pity Shakespeare’s late plays. They’re neither histories nor tragedies, they lack the philosophical knottiness of the “problem plays” and they’ve never been as well beloved as the comedies, which have picturesque plots and wily servants. They contain elements of tragedy—terrible misunderstanding, exile, sundering, even (and repeatedly) hints of incest—but things are always resolved. The resolutions are always last-minute, strange, and occasionally unsatisfying, and they always come about by virtue of that elusive act, forgiveness.

The Winter’s Tale is no different. King Leontes of Sicilia is plagued by irrational and consuming jealousy; he thinks his pregnant wife, Hermione, is having an affair with his best friend, Polixenes of Bohemia. He tries to kill Polixenes (who flees), arrests Hermione (who remains dignified and steadfast under interrogation), and has the baby girl, once it’s born, abandoned on a far-off shore by the husband of one of Hermione’s women, Paulina. Cosmic vengeance is swift: Leontes’ only son, little Mamilius, dies, and Hermione collapses, apparently dead of grief, at the news. In almost a single stroke, the king has lost his love, his heir, his future, and his best friend. Sixteen years later, the baby—called Perdita, rescued by some rural nobodies—is falling in love at a party with a young man named Florizel, who is the catalyst for her discovery of her past…

Jeanette Winterson’s The Gap of Time is the first entry in the new Hogarth Shakespeare series, in which contemporary novelists attempt to rewrite Shakespeare plays. (Others lined up include Anne Tyler to reinterpret The Taming of the Shrew, Howard Jacobson to do The Merchant of Venice, and Gillian Flynn to do Hamlet.) It’s an idea reminiscent of the rewritten Jane Austen novels: Val McDermid’s Northanger Abbey, Joanna Trollope’s Sense and Sensibility, Alexander McCall Smith’s Emma. Curiously, however, I think Shakespeare is better suited to this retelling idea than Austen. Austen is always of her time; her novels are set in a firmly early-C18 social and cultural milieu. Shakespeare bounced all over the place, making things up (plots, characters, locations) as he went. Austen’s stories don’t really work unless they’re in that Regency setting; the customs and mores of the time are precisely what she’s commenting on, and what provoke her characters to act as they do. Shakespeare’s stories do work in a contemporary setting, I would argue, because what he’s writing about isn’t really the effect of a particular culture on the behavior of humans; what he’s writing about is what humans (think that they) want, and how—within various societies—they go about getting (or not getting) that. Macbeth, for instance, isn’t strictly about medieval Scottish monarchical succession; it’s about acquiring power in an environment that values aggression. You could set it in a boardroom easily.

Likewise, the faintly preposterous mid-European kingdoms of The Winter’s Tale aren’t important to the story in the slightest. It’s basically a second-chance version of Othello, minus the racial tension: what happens when the past won’t stay past? How might a man feel when the family he thought he’d destroyed comes back to life? How might a daughter feel when told that the man who raised her isn’t her father, that her father gave her away? You don’t get all of the nuance of this in the stage play; you get the bare bones of a story that ends with redemption and repentance and miraculous, astonishing forgiveness. Where you can get all of that nuance, of course, is in a novel, the form most uniquely suited to inspiring empathetic identification between real-life reader and fictional character. Which is where The Gap of Time enters this review.

Winterson’s updating is solid: Leontes becomes Leo, the mercurial and charismatic head of a hedge fund; Polixenes is Xeno, his best friend (and former lover) from their boarding school days. Hermione becomes MiMi, an internationally renowned chanteuse, and Paulina becomes Pauline, Leo’s competent, no-bullshit personal assistant. The shepherd and the “clown” of Shakespeare’s play, surrogate family to Perdita, become Shep and Clo, an African-American father and son who run a bar in a barely-fictionalized New Orleans. All of this makes sense, both for a novel set in the present day and for an adaptation of the relationships that drive Shakespeare’s original.

Kenneth Branagh as Leontes
Judi Dench as Paulina

The most interesting thing that Winterson does, I think, is to suggest that Leo may not have been entirely wrong in his jealousy. MiMi and Xeno aren’t having an affair—that’s never in question—but we learn that when Leo wanted to propose, he used Xeno as a go-between, and the two of them—Xeno and MiMi—connected then in a way that was more intimate than pure friendship. Pauline asks Leo: would it be so bad, if they loved each other? They also love you. Leo’s history with Xeno is made more explicit than Shakespeare could have made it: they had sex a few times at boarding school, before Leo caused an accident that nearly killed Xeno and which affected their friendship forever after. Xeno as an adult, meanwhile, is sort-of-probably-mostly-but-not-quite-completely gay; his son, Zel (the Florizel character), is the result of a deliberately planned liaison with a woman. The fluidity of the adults’ sexuality is a clever nod to the ever-present titillation of Tudor staging conventions (boys playing women who kiss men playing men, for instance, or boys playing women who pretend to be boys who then kiss men). It’s also a brilliant explanation of motive. The three members of the older generation—the parents—all want each other, all at the same time. It makes more sense, to me at least, than Leo’s jealousy springing out of nowhere, as it does in The Winter’s Tale. It makes a fascinating contrast to the usual story in the comedies, where young love must overcome elderly conservatism; here, it’s the older people who are more adventurous than their offspring (Perdita and Zel are, to all appearances, firmly cis/hetero/vanilla in their sexual preferences).

Parents and their children are a major concern in Shakespeare’s late plays, something out of which critics have mostly made pretty heavy weather. There’s a curious pattern to The TempestPericles and The Winter’s Tale: the mothers are out of the picture (dead or presumed dead); the fathers lose the daughters; the fathers are, in some way, morally dubious or culpable; the daughters return to the fathers, though not before their relationship is almost rendered morally dubious in and of itself. (In Pericles, the eponymous hero finds his long-lost child in a brothel and nearly makes use of her services. In The Winter’s Tale, Leontes fancies Perdita when she turns up at court, before he hears her life story and puts two and two together. In The Tempest, well, it’s not clear what Prospero and Miranda have been doing living in a cave all those years, but…) In all of these plays, too, disasters are brought upon women and children by the actions of men; this is the part where they all look like tragedies. Only the endings redeem, and often those endings seem like they shouldn’t be enough. Winterson gives her characters some good comments on gendered genre trappings:

“I am revising my thesis. It’s the fathers who kill the sons.”

“Who kills the daughters?” said Perdita.

“We all do,” said Xeno. “If the hero doesn’t kill you—call him Hamlet, call him Othello, call him Leontes, Don Giovanni, James Bond—still you’ll be the sacrifice for his soul.”

The inclusion of Leontes in this list is delightfully cheeky; unpacking it, it’s also clear that some of these murderous heroes (Giovanni, Bond) have been chosen because they’re sexually, as well as physically, destructive. And Winterson’s not afraid of pointing out that even fictional women who survive are made to suffer in order to advance the hero’s development: women are collateral damage in the cosmic struggle for a man’s soul.

Putting sixteen years between the beginning of the play (/novel) and its conclusion is the literary equivalent of a montage, only the growth and development doesn’t happen during the intervening time. When we come back to the characters whom we’ve seen at their worst, they haven’t miraculously gotten better; we return to them just as they start to understand that they’ve only been wasting time. Perhaps for this reason, Shakespeare’s late plays are often read through a biographical lens (Prospero’s farewell to magic = Shakespeare’s farewell to the stage, anyone?), and they seem to speak in particular to audiences and actors on the far sides of the age spectrum: both the elderly and newly minted adults can see themselves in this plot.

Looking back on a life is an inherently regretful act. We fuck up so much; we could have done better. Even the best of us have mostly failed. In a way, that’s the comfort: no one comes out of their own life as an angel. (The video game Xeno has spent his adult life designing, incidentally, is all about angels; it’s based on a dream famously dreamt by the French poet Gerard de Nerval.) Xeno, again, is the commentator:

“If I could make it unhappen. And then I remember that the choices I made, I made because there was no me to make any other choices. Free will depends on being stronger than the moment that traps you.”

It depends not only on that, but on your ability to cope with the choices—free or not—that you’ve already made. “The past”, Winterson writes, “is a grenade that explodes when thrown.” This beautiful novel reinvents a story that comes from far, far back in our collective cultural past—from farther back even than Shakespeare. The endpoint is that of the prodigal son. We will be forgiven, every one of us, but only by each other.

I am in blood stepp’d in so far…

I went to see the new film of Macbeth, starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, with Papa Bear last week. It’s not a play that I feel very personally about (although my brilliant little brother has played Macbeth, and has helped me to understand the text better through his performance). So I had few expectations, apart from hoping to be dazzled and provoked. Both of these things happened, and I’m still trying to figure out how and why I felt as I did about the whole film, so I thought I’d expand my remit a bit to talk about it here.

Negatives first: my major issue with this film was that the language seemed basically secondary. The cool thing about Shakespeare is that you can put all sorts of window dressing on it, as long as you don’t add dialogue, so that films of the plays can be visually amazing, with silent scenes and characters that create resonance or suggest motive. The downside of that is that the language can easily become less and less important, as the stuff you’re being shown sidelines the stuff you’re hearing. Fassbender as Macbeth delivered most of his lines in a sort of mumbling Scottish-tinged monotone, which I actually didn’t mind per se, but in a few places he seemed to have trouble with where the emphases should be. Marion Cotillard as Lady Macbeth was quite a lot better; she was inexplicable but definitely human (as opposed to a crazed gender-bending monster), which I’ve always considered a more effective approach to her character. She also got a backstory in the form of a silent prologue that showed her and Macbeth burying their baby, which made her line “I know how tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me” a lot easier to understand. The witches also made the monotone thing work; they all looked like terribly sad, average medieval Scottish women, auguries of the kind of pain and suffering that falls, in a war, disproportionately upon people who have nothing to do with the quarrel.

This version also draws out the play’s implications about children. In an excellent echo of Macduff’s wife and children, the witches appeared with two: a silent little girl and then later a baby. When Banquo is killed and his son Fleance runs (in a scene that isn’t staged in the play), it’s the witches’ silent little girl who appears to him and seems to direct him into thin air, where he vanishes.

Poor Lady M.

Fleance comes back in the last scene (a silent one, so also the film director’s interpolation). He takes Macbeth’s sword from the ground outside the city. It’s intercut with shots of Malcolm, now king, standing in his throne room, then starting to walk purposefully towards the doors. Fleance turns and starts walking away; we flit back to Malcolm, who’s moving faster. The next shot we see of Fleance, he’s sped up in response. They both break into a run. The last shot in the movie is Fleance running away from the camera into a blood-colored smoke: a stocky, freckly eight-year-old clutching a huge sword, the sound of his breathing jogging up and down. It ends the film not on the triumphant(-ish) note of the rightful king being crowned, but with the promise of further bloodshed. Even little boys aren’t exempt; it passes the violence down to the next generation, in precisely the same way that Banquo does when he lets Fleance hold his sword (in another scene that isn’t in the play). You can’t know that your children will live by the sword without also knowing that they may die upon it.

In the light of Shakespeare’s other historical plays, particularly Richard II, it’s also interesting for what it says about kingship. There’s no context or background for how Duncan (a cracking David Thewlis, projecting kindliness and weakness) got his crown. Macbeth takes it from him by murdering him, and there’s a bit at his coronation, the anointing, which made me think of Richard’s lines: “Not all the water in the rough rude sea/Can wash the balm off an anointed king.” (Nor the spot from Lady Macbeth’s hand, evidently.) But obviously that’s not true, because even when the supposed balance of nature is restored (with Malcom’s ascension), there’s Fleance to deal with, and the witches have prophesied that he’ll be king someday. I don’t know whether Scottish history proved them right or wrong, or whether this bit has no historical basis at all (knowing Shakespeare, it could be that). Is there even any point, this plot makes us ask, in trying to determine who the “rightful” king is?

Fassbender gettin’ his crazy on

Maybe Macbeth’s crime is not so much that he slew his sovereign as that he slew a guest. When you hosted someone, you were making a promise, not only to not kill them, but to actively protect them. So Lady Macbeth’s furious speech, “Was the hope drunk wherein you dressed yourself?”, about how he promised her he’d kill Duncan and promise-breakers are the worst, takes on a whole other sort of dramatic irony. In order to keep a private promise to his wife, he’s going to have to break a much more serious, socially binding promise to a man under his protection. It’s for the same reason that the Glencoe Massacre was so infamous: not just that the Campbells killed people, but that they killed people whom they were obligated to protect. They betrayed their trust fully.

For making me think hard about the play and its text and themes, I think the film was worth seeing. It’s curious, though, how much of Shakespeare’s language is simply elided by being able to direct your audience’s attention through a camera shot, or to force a comparison or parallel through colour or lighting. I’ve seen films of Shakespeare that don’t do this so much, and I’ve seen ones that do it a lot; this Macbeth is in the latter camp, and although that doesn’t make it a bad Macbeth, it does make it seem more like a reimagining, and less like an attempt to be faithful to the playtext.

Top Ten Fictional Characters I Have Definitely Fancied

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by a blog called The Broke and the Bookish (yep, and…yep.) They’re cool. Check ‘em out. This week’s topic is courtesy of a text conversation with Glinda: top ten fictional characters I have definitely fancied.

1. Benedick from Much Ado About Nothing. This is sort of weird because my little brother just played Benedick (to rave reviews, might I add), but come on. He’s by far the bravest, funniest, most in-touch-with-his-feelings man Shakespeare ever wrote. Also, young Kenneth Branagh. Awwww.

2. Lord Peter Wimsey, of the Lord Peter Wimsey Mysteries. Urbane, witty, and owner of a landed estate. Also married to Harriet Vane, so two for one, really. (Nb: no actor has ever successfully portrayed this character. All have fallen short.)

3. Hotspur (Harry Percy), from Henry IV pt 1. Another Shakespearean! I love Hotspur’s banter with Lady Percy, his general liveliness, the fact that he obviously adores her and yet also has a certain amount of drive and initiative… Shame he dies, in the end.

4. Levin, from Anna Karenina. There’s just something about a guy who knows how to scythe, I’m sorry. (Lookin’ at you, Poldark.) Also, Levin proposes to his wife by way of the nineteenth-century Russian version of Scrabble, which is pretty much the best thing anyone’s ever done.

5. Jason Compson, from The Sound and the Fury. Sure, he’s a mean alcoholic, but I bet he’d be great in bed. Gotta have an emotionally compromised Southern boy on this list.

6. Madame Goesler, from the Palliser series by Anthony Trollope. One of the few women in this series who manages to make her own way in the world. Her first marriage (to a wealthy old European who then dies) sets her up for life, and she refuses to take advantage of the decrepit Duke of Omnium by marrying him before his death, so she’s got a moral compass. She’s also, obviously, incredibly sexy.

7. Byron Bunch, from Light In August. Byron is not incredibly sexy. He’s about as workaday as you get. But he’s a good, sweet, simple man, and he loves sweet, simple Lena, and sometimes that’s all you need to know about someone.

8. Iago, from Othello. Look, I’m sorry about this, but you know it’s true: inexplicable malevolence is hot. End of.

9. Jonathan Strange, from Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. For his insouciance, and for his insane natural talent. He’d get along well with Hotspur, I feel.

10. Angel Clare, from Tess of the D’Urbervilles. The original Nice Guy. Encounter him in your twenties and you won’t be impressed; encounter him for the first time as a fourteen-year-old and you will be smitten. Then, of course, you’ll be disappointed. At least he starts off well.

No Heathcliffs or Rochesters on this list! At least I appear to have a defined fictional type: clever, funny, sincere (despite the ability to wield irony), and (mostly) wealthy. Hmmm…

Wise Children, by Angela Carter

First published: 1991.

Edition read: Vintage Classics, pub. 1992.

Provenance: purchased from Bookends in Carlisle.

Read: December 2014, curled up in an armchair next to the Christmas tree.

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Angela Carter was a revelation. I started her book of cultural criticism, The Sadeian Woman, in my second year of university, given it by a friend who was two years older and who, as a Finalist, had attained a level of world-weary knowingness that awed me. I didn’t manage to finish the book because, frankly, I hadn’t read enough secondary material to know what to do with it, and it scared me. Even then, though, I could recognize that this writer was totally unique. No one else thought like this, or if they did, they didn’t write it down so sensibly. Last year, I read The Bloody Chamber, her collection of re-imagined fairytales, and made the wonderful, rare discovery that every line in the book was quotable in its brilliance, beauty and wit. When it came time to make this list of fifty, I put her novel Wise Children on it, keen for more of the same. It wasn’t quite the same.

Which is not to say that I didn’t enjoy it. Wise Children is a novel that pays homage to, among other things, Shakespeare, especially Shakespearean comedy and the later romance plays; it has twins, doublings, the possibility of incest, a contrast between “high” and “low” culture and lifestyles, and a persistent questioning of legitimacy. The two sisters at the heart of the story are Dora and Leonora (known, mostly for brevity’s sake, as Nora) Chance, chorus girls, dancers and sometimes actresses on the vaudeville and chorus hall circuit of early twentieth-century London. They are the bastard children of Sir Melchior Hazard, the greatest Shakespearean actor of his generation, an Olivier figure who never acknowledges them as his own and who is quite content to let the world think that they are his brother Peregrine’s by-blows. The two names–Chance and Hazard–are playfully resonant: both mean “luck” or “fortune”, though Chance is a simple word and Hazard a grander one. These names are Carter’s first warning that Wise Children will be about the differences between subcultures within the same country, and the potentially awful consequences that may visit you if you choose to ignore the less picturesque aspects of your own history. You could, I suppose, call it an allegory.

Spotting the Shakespeare references scattered throughout the book is highly diverting; there is, for instance, the fact that Melchior Hazard’s mother met her husband while playing Cordelia to his King Lear, an imaginary incest which parallels the Chance girls’ childhood crush on their famous father. (This also mirrors the uncomfortable father/daughter dynamic in Pericles, where the exiled king encounters a girl in a brothel who turns out to be his long-lost daughter, Marina.) My favorite, however, has got to be a scene set during a game show broadcast. The Chance sisters have an extended unofficial family which includes “little Tiffany”, their goddaughter, who is now in her early twenties, and an extended official family, which includes Tristram Hazard, their half-brother. Tiffany and Tristram, both carrying on the family line by working in show business, co-host a game show called “Lashings of Lolly” (I don’t think you’re meant to understand what this means; I certainly don’t.) They are also dating, and as the novel opens, Tiff is pregnant with Tristram’s baby. In a rather extraordinary scene, she descends a staircase on the set of Lashings of Lolly during a live broadcast, apparently out of her mind, alternately singing and talking nonsense, before taking off her clothes and dashing, naked and unstoppable, from the studio. It’s painfully funny, and it’s as obvious a parody of Ophelia’s mad scene in Hamlet as I’ve ever read.

Mostly, Wise Children (like Shakespeare) is about generation, and generations. The novel’s title comes from an old saying: “It’s a wise child who knows its own father.” The traditional view of parenthood, where paternity is nearly impossible to establish but maternity is nearly impossible to deny, is interrogated and turned inside-out by the book’s events. Where paternity is so often disputed, we have, in the end, a disputed maternal line for the Chance sisters as well; there is some suggestion that their mother might have been the woman who raised them and whom they considered to be their grandmother. This totally destabilizes the idea of heredity: if women no longer occupy a position of immobility, their children could be anything, could inherit all manner of undesirable traits, from unknown forebears. Even unbroken heredity is as much a curse as a blessing: you have to destroy your progenitor in order to become your own person, but more often than not, you become the thing you thought you’d put behind you. Melchior, on his 100th birthday, dresses as his famous father, Ranulph, who killed Melchior’s mother, her lover, and himself. Is he being his father, or defeating him? Is it possession or exorcism, damnation or redemption?

This is a hugely entertaining book, but not a particularly easy one to review. It’s not even particularly easy to describe, or analyze. I have not pulled any quotes from it; few leap out. It addresses large questions but makes no claims about any of them. Carter’s point, presumably, is that supposedly clear demarcations between the known and unknown, the legitimate and illegitimate, the normative and deviant, are actually very blurred lines. I’d recommend Wise Children, but it’s more diffuse than her most notorious work, lacking the intensity and precision of The Bloody Chamber. Still–as the Lucky Chance sisters would no doubt tell you–different doesn’t have to mean bad.