L’Argent (Money) by Émile Zola

“The clock on the Bourse had just struck eleven when Saccard walked into Champeaux’s, into the white and gold dining-room, with its two tall windows looking out over the square.”

Aristide Saccard is on the move again. Brought low by ruinous business practices (see La Curée or The Kill), his wife dead, and his estate sold, Saccard winds calculatingly through Paris like a snake looking for an opportunity to strike. At first, he is certain that his brother, the government minister, Eugène Rougon, will come to his assistance, but when he hears that his sibling wishes to remove him from Paris for fear of embarrassment, Saccard makes a precipitative move, declaring he will open a bank that will be the financial success of Paris, a venture in which everyone will be clamouring to be involved.  His passion and sheer energy sweeps people along with him, including Lady Caroline and her brother, Hamelin, honest and respectable souls, who admire Saccard’s genius.  Yet in the world of big money and La Bourse (the French equivalent to Wall Street), allegiances can fluctuate, affiliations change, and behind every corner is the face of your own demise.

Celebration in the Streets of Paris (Montemarte) (1863)
Vasily Perov
source Wikiart

“The Bourse is a real forest, a forest on a dark night, in which people can only grope their way along.  In all that darkness, if you’re foolish enough to take heed of everything, however inept and contradictory, that you’re told, then you’re sure to break your neck.”

Zola paints an excellent representative portrait of Paris’ frantic and unscrupulous financial world of 1863-during the reign of Napoleon II of the Second Empire.  We see how alliances and loyalties are formed only on the basis of financial gain, yet human concern or family loyalties have little value.

“In these covert and cowardly financial battles, in which the weak are quietly disembowelled, there are no more bonds of any sort, no kinship, no friendship, only the atrocious law of the strong, those who eat so as not to be eaten.”

La Bourse (1900)
source Wikimedia Commons

Zola demonstrates through his narrative and his colourful characters, how the lust for money, greed and power are not merely promoted, but in fact, worshiped.

“His wife was never seen, being unwell, said the Marquis, and kept to her apartment by infirmity.  However, the house and furniture were hers, and he merely lodged there in a furnished apartment, owning only his personal effects, in a trunk he could have carried away in a cab; they had been legally separated ever since he started living on speculation.  There had been two catastrophes already, in which he had blankly refused to pay what he owed and the official receiver, having taken stock of the situation, had not even bothered to send him an official document.  The slate was simply wiped clean.  As long as he won, he pocketed the money.  Then, when he lost, he didn’t pay:  everyone knew it and everyone was resigned to it.  He had an illustrious name, he made an excellent ornament for boards of directors; so new companies, looking for golden mastheads, fought over him:  he was never unemployed.”

As Saccard cleverly constructs his colossal financial empire, he is captivated by money but he is captivated by power more.  The thrill of financial battle is as addicting as as drug, and he is high on the power and the ultimate campaigns fought to gain it.  It is a house of cards and each trade, each purchase, each decision, is perhaps the one that will cause its downfall.

“Wealth for him had always taken the form of that dazzle of new coins, raining down through the sunshine like a spring shower and falling like hail on the ground, covering it with heaps of gold that you stirred with a shovel just to see their brightness and hear their music ……… But he had always been a man of imagination, seeing things on too grand a scale, transforming his shady and risky deals into epic poems; and this time, with this really colossal and prosperous enterprise, he had moved into extravagant dreams of conquest, with an idea so mad, so huge, that he did not even formulate it clearly to himself.”

Panorama of Paris, 1865
Charles Soulier
source Wikimedia Commons

Also explored are the feelings on anti-Semitism prevalent during the time.  Jews were often seen as good for loans but with little else to their character or worth to recommend them.  In a world were humanity is held in so little regard, this racism is another head on the monster of greed, power and manipulation.

With his usual descriptive flair and creative technique, Zola allows the reader to skim along the surface of the narrative, to first get your bearings, before he draws you into the story and you are held captive by the machinations of the characters, the vivid depictions of Paris and the power of that elusive yet ever-coveted currency, money.

This book was not Zola’s favourite to write.  “It’s very difficult to write a novel about money.  It’s cold, icy, lacking in interest ……”  Zola said in an interview, but he declined to demonize it, instead choosing to show the effects of its worship in a work that would “praise and exalt it’s generous and fecund power, it’s expansive force.”  His technique certainly worked, as the reader becomes the observer of an inanimate object that effectively controls the lives of an empire.

Other Reviews of the Rougon-Macquart Series (Zola’s recommended order):

Further Reading:

A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis

“I never knew that grief felt so much like fear.”

In A Grief Observed Lewis shares his thoughts and emotions with regard to the death of his wife, Joy Davidson, and it is perhaps one of the most powerful books on suffering that I’ve ever read.  As a reader, you are drawn into his grief and, contrary to what the title suggests, you can feel and experience Lewis’ anguish right alongside him, at times almost against your will.  Lewis is pain personified, and it’s raw and it’s shocking.

In his book, The Problem of Pain, Lewis deals with suffering from an aspect of reason and pragmatism, but in A Grief Observed, he is a broken man, on one hand calling out for sense and understanding to apply to a situation that is beyond comprehension, and on the other, resisting examining his situation. Lewis’ faith was shaken but not broken.  He does not deny God, yet he does ask what kind of God is He?  What type of God would allow something like this to happen?  He asks hard questions, makes brutally honest statements, and you wonder if this man is on his way to losing his faith.

“Talk to me about the truth of religion and I’ll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I’ll listen submissively. But don’t come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don’t understand.”

Yet why can’t we ask hard questions of our Maker?  Why can’t we storm and rage against the injustices of life?  Lewis kicked and stormed against the door of Heaven and instead he found an opening into his own soul.

“God has not been trying an experiment on my faith or love in order to find out their quality. He knew it already. It was I who didn’t. In this trial He makes us occupy the dock, the witness box, and the bench all at once. He always knew that my temple was a house of cards. His only way of making me realize the fact was to knock it down.”

After long endeavouring to remember his wife’s countenance, it is only when he stops struggling to see Joy, that her face suddenly returns to his mind. Lewis finally realizes that we need to seek God for Himself — for who He is —- and not for what we can get from Him.

“You never know how much you really believe anything until its truth or falsehood becomes a matter of life and death to you. It is easy to say you believe a rope to be strong and sound as long as you are merely using it to cord a box. But suppose you had to hang by that rope over a precipice. Wouldn’t you then first discover how much you really trusted it?”

Madeleine L’Engle writes in her introduction to the book:  “I am grateful to Lewis for having the courage to yell, to doubt, to kick at God in angry violence. This is part of a healthy grief which is not often encouraged.  It is helpful indeed that C.S. Lewis, who has been such a successful apologist for Christianity, should have the courage to admit doubt about what he has so superbly proclaimed.  It gives us permission to admit our own doubts, our own anger and anguishes, and to know that they are part of the soul’s growth.”

courtesy of Dawn Huczek
source Flickr
Creative Commons
———————————————————————————–

C.S. Lewis Project

Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift

“My father had a small Estate in Nottinghamshire; I was the Third of five Sons.”

As Samuel Johnson stated, Gulliver’s Travels is a work “so new and strange, that it filled the reader with a mingled emotion of merriment and amazement.”  One must remember that at the time of Gulliver’s Travels, readers had rarely encountered prose fiction in the form of stories, let along the fantastical stories and adventures of Gulliver.  They didn’t quite know how to respond.

In the last chapter of the this book, its purpose is laid out to the reader, that Swift’s “principal Design was to inform, and not amuse thee.”, a deviation in form, since most medieval writers sought to do both.  The Roman lyric poet, Horace, stated that, “The poet who pleases everyone is the one who blends the useful with the sweet, simultaneously amusing and informing the reader.”  Likewise, Thomas More in his Utopia states that his book is “A Truly Golden Handbook, No Less Beneficial than Entertaining”; Shakespeare seeks also to entertain and instruct, and The Cantebury Tales are described as “tales of best sentence and sola”, expressing the standard medieval definition of literature which both informs and gives pleasure.  So why does Swift no longer want to amuse readers?  Why does he choose to change the medieval model of how literature was represented?  If his readers have not noticed the festering undercurrents of judgement within the story, it’s as if Swift was determined emphasis the seriousness of the work.  As throughout his story, he gives the English people strengths that do not exist, so he also gives the reader amusement, where amusement does not exist.   No wonder people were puzzled by his unique representation.

Born in Dublin  in 1667, Swift spent the early years of his life moving between his hometown and London, attempting to gain a footing both in politics and the Church.  His first position was with Sir William Temple a retired English diplomat who was writing his memoirs.  Swift formed a close relationship with Temple and when he died, Swift hoped to gain a position at Canterbury or Westminister through King William, but the position never materialized.  Amid various other disappointments, Swift continued his travels between Ireland and England, and during these years, he produced A Tale in a Tub and The Battle of the Books, gaining a reputation as a writer.  Gulliver’s Travels was published later in his career, in 1726.

Mural depicting Gulliver surrounded by
the citizens of Lilliput
source Wikipedia

Episodic in nature, Gulliver’s Travels follows Lemuel Gulliver as he visits various unknown civilizations and learns their ways while gently comparing their societies with those of his own.  I say gently because Gulliver makes his musings appear as a gentle examination, but Swift has other ideas. One doesn’t have to look very hard to see that this work is a sweeping condemnation of the human race.

Gulliver first lands in Lilliput where the society is diminutive in stature compared to Gulliver’s enormity.  Initially accepted by the Lilliputians because of his good behaviour, he eventually upsets them by refusing to help them conquer another province and he is forced to escape.

Gulliver exhibited to the Brobdingnag
Farmer – Richard Redgrave
source Wikipedia

His second adventure is nearly an inversion of the first, in that this time Gulliver is small and, landing in Brobdingnag, soon realizes the gigantic features of its inhabitants.  While being poorly treated by his first family, Gulliver eventually comes to the Queen who treats him reasonably well and he is able to converse with the King.  The King, however, becomes unhappy with his description of the state of Europe, in particular their use of guns and cannons.

Gulliver discovers Laputa,
the flying island
J.J. Granville
source Wikipedia

The next adventure includes the flying island of Laputa, which is a rather bizarre place.  The inhabitants are devotees of the arts of mathematics and music only, but not only fail to employ them for any benefit to society, they also, through self-deception, are blindly unable to recognize their failures.

The land of the Houyhnhnms is Gulliver’s fourth and final stop, a land of wise and noble horses, but he also encounters a race called Yahoos, a race very much like himself yet more filthy, vulgar, bestial and stupid.  Although they at first recognize him as a Yahoo, the Houyhnhnms finally take to Gulliver, impressed with his cleanliness and ability to reason.  Yet in spite of the relational ties he makes in this land and his desire to remain among these highly civilized beasts, the horses foresee a danger in Gulliver’s presence and send him off in a boat.  When he arrive home, our protagonist is a changed man.  Disgusted with the “Yahoos” of his country, he is barely able to live in their company, finally choosing a rather secluded life.

Gulliver taking final leave of
the Houyhnhnms (1769)
Sawrey Gilpin
source Wikipedia

Through Gulliver’s interaction with the Liliputans and the Brobdingnagans, Swift satirizes British politics.  The Liliputans are only concerned with petty and trivial problems, and in their self-aggrandization can only see themselves as governors of the whole world.  Yet while Liliput represents a small view of man, Brobdingnag represents a large one.  As in Liliput, Swift explores the contrasts between liberty and law, but now the situation is reversed as Gulliver is in miniature in a land of giants.  The island of Laputa is built upon philosophy and it’s inhabitants are seen as Swift’s critque of scientism, or that the only way to true knowledge is through scientific disciplines.  Only what can be seen and measured is taken into account, but, of course, this leaves no room to examine the soul.  The land of the Houyhnhnms is perhaps the most fascinating part of the voyages.  In this land the beasts are the civilized society and the Yahoos, who are human, are savages.  The Houyhnhnms live by reason and that reason, working within nature, give rise to their idyllic existence.  Gulliver believes that if he lives long enough with his friends, this virtue will rub off on him, but in fact the horses see his reason as imperfect and therefore he is more dangerous than a Yahoo who has no reason at all.  In reality, Gulliver is half-way between both species, halfway between pure passion and pure reason.

Apparently both Sir Walter Scott and William Thackeray were shocked and repulsed by Gulliver’s fourth voyage, yet there is still argument as to whether Swift’s work was a satire in the form of Horace, where he is only lightly satirizing Gulliver’s idealism, or the heavier satire of Juvenal, whereupon his writing is a vitriolic, sarcastic diatribe condemning the human race.  I’ll leave it to the reader to decide.  Yet perhaps Swift himself can shed light on his intentions:

“I have ever hated all Nations professions and Communityes and all my love is towards individualls for instance I hate the tribe of Lawyers, but I love Councellor such a one, and Judge such a one for so with Physicians (I will not speak of my own trade) Soldiers, English, Scotch, French; and the rest but principally I hate and detest that animal called man, although I hartily love John, Peter, Thomas and so forth.  This is the system upon which I have governed myself for many years (but do not tell) and so I shall go on until I have done with them I have got materials toward a treatise, proving the falsity of that definition animal rationale [rational animal], and to show it would be only rationis capax [capable of reason].  Upon this great foundation of Misanthropy (though not in Timon’s manner) The whole building of my Travells is erected.  And I will never have peace of mind until all honest men are of my Opinion.”

While I thought Swift’s satire brilliant, and his characterizations mostly just, I felt that he focused only on the negative aspects of human nature.  If Swift really saw the world only through a lense of disappointment, treachery, selfishness, and deceit, yet missed the integrity, loyalty, virtues and goodwill of the flip-side of human nature, that is truly a tragedy.

Read for my Classics Club Spin #8, Fariba from Exploring Classics joined me in reading this one.  Here is her most excellent review.  Thanks for the company, Fariba!

(And further reflections by Fariba on Gulliver’s Travels)

Montaigne’s Essays – Part Two

Oh, Montaigne!  The more of his essays that I read, the more I like him.  He’s inquisitive, does not let anything get in the way of giving his opinion on absolutely any subject, has a clever but disordered mind, and because of the last point, really makes you engage your brain as you read.  I would have loved to meet him in real life, but, I get the impression that we’d probably have occasionally annoyed each other.  

Some of the readings for this section were:

On The Vanity of Words:  After reading Montaigne’s essay On Education, I suppose this attack on rhetoricians can’t come as much of a surprise.  To be eloquent is to foster a type of deception, and Montaigne is scathing in his condemnation of it.

Cicero & the magistrates disovering the
tomb of Archimedes
Benjamin West
source Wikiart

On the Inconsistancy of Our Actions:  This one is very interesting. Montaigne laments the inconsistency of men, stating that instead of following a path to wisdom throughout their lives, they are ruled solely by their appetites, living for the here-and-now and are merely motivated by opportunity, very much like animals. They blow with the winds.  He gives various examples on inconstancy, leading us to believe that consistency as Montaigne defines it, is virtually impossible.  One must plan one’s life to the utmost and follow the course, not being swayed by emotions or outside forces to be consistent and, as Cicero says, “For nothing can be consistent that has not reason for its foundation.”  Therefore, in Montaigne’s eyes, everyone is lacking true reason.  This is one of the few essays that I’ve read so far where Montaigne actually managed to keep on track with his subject.  Bravo!  This is certainly one of my favourites.

On Conscience:  Even if one finds pleasure in their vices, their conscience will always convict them, says Montaigne.  With one of his usual unexpected leaps of thought, he discusses the futility of torture, labelling it a means of testing endurance rather than a means to ferret out truth.  He uses some fun examples in this one, my favourite being Scipio tearing up his account books before the court when accused of dishonesty with regard to the money entrusted to him.  According to Montaigne, his actions declared him an honest man because his big heart could not bear to be accused of such a vulgar crime. Perhaps one should be grateful that Montaigne did not choose to be a judge as his profession.

Portrait d’un homme portant un exemplaire des
Essais de Montaigne
Johann Anton de Peters
source Wikiart

On Rewards for Honour:  Basically I understood that Montaigne feels that rewards should not be given out too liberally or their value is decreased. He’d rather not give out rewards at all, than have too many people get them.  Not a very modern viewpoint, Montaigne, when we presently strive to give everyone a reward for anything.  I tend to side here with Montaigne.

On Books:  Montaigne employs a coyness in this essay, stating that he reads books for pleasure only and has little desire to truly exercise his brain.  His goals in reading are to learn to know himself, and to learn to live and die well. His self-deprecation is quite startling as he confesses to having little knowledge and once again admits to having a poor memory.  Elaborating on his poor memory, he ends by giving a number of examples of literary criticism (not his title for it) that he has written at the ends of books, so if he picks them up again, he is able to ascertain why he liked them or not, and if he would read them again.

On Presumption:  It is not good to think too highly of ourselves, nor is it beneficial to think of ourselves worse than we are.  Montaigne advocates for balance and a practical self-knowledge.  Yet Man has such a variety of differing opinions, there is a “maze of obscurity” which makes the school of Wisdom uncertain, and this gets on Montaigne’s nerves.  He then meanders through a lovely forest of subjects, from self-deprecating statements to mediocre poetry to appearances of famous men, etc., finally ending with his disdain for modern education, in that it teaches learning instead of wisdom and goodness.

” It seems to me that the nursing mother of the most erroneous ideas, both of men in general and of the individual, is the exaggerated opinion man has of himself.”


On Giving the Lie:  Montaigne indulges in more modesty (false-modesty?) and finally gets to the title of the essay, lamenting that lying has been turned into a virtue by modern society.  He strongly condemns it:

“Lying is an ugly vice, which is painted in its most shameful colours by an ancient writer (Lysander) when he says that ‘to lie is evidence that we despise God and at the same time fear men.'”

To be honest, I feel that Montaigne could have benefited highly from the type of education that he despised, however, then he wouldn’t have been Montaigne and only another highly intellectual rhetorician with the same habits as all other rhetoricians.  And our Montaigne is unique, that is certain!  Not always simple to follow, but unique!


Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow by Jerome K. Jerome

“It is a most remarkable thing.  I sat down with the full intention of writing something clever and original; but for the life of me I can’t think of anything clever and original — at least — not at this moment.”

Jerome K. Jerome is an author best known for his comic travelogue, Three Men in a Boat, which I highly recommend as it is totally hilarious. Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow is a collection of essays; written with Jerome’s signature witty reparteé and lively humour, the essays are titled:

  1. On Being Hard Up
  2. On Being in the Blue
  3. On Vanity and Vanities
  4. On Getting On in the World
  5. On Being Idle
  6. On Being In Love
  7. On the Weather
  8. On Cats and Dogs
  9. On Being Shy
  10. On Babies
  11. On Eating and Drinking
  12. On Furnished Apartments
  13. On Dress and Deportment
  14. On Memory

Yet while Jerome’s anecdotes are amusing and give the reader a good chuckle, he also imparts wisdom to his writing.  In On Vanity and Being Vain, he, at first, pokes fun at the vanity of all men, but concludes that we all must be vain in the right manner.

“Let us be vain, not of our trousers and hair, but of brave hearts and working hands, of truth , of purity, of nobility.  Let us be too vain to stoop to aught that is mean or base, too vain for petty selfishness and little-minded envy, too vain to say an unkind world or do an unkind act.  Let us be vain of being single-hearted, upright gentlemen in the midst of a world of knaves.  Let us pride ourselves upon thinking high thoughts, achieving great deeds, living good lives.”

First Edition, 1886

Jerome also uses wonderfully descriptive sentences, that weave a vibrant and idyllic world around the reader:

“And oh, how dainty is spring —- Nature at sweet eighteen!  When the little, hopeful leaves peep out so fresh and green, so pure and bright, like young lives pushing shyly out into the bustling world; when the fruittree blossoms, pink and white, like village maidens in the Sunday frocks, hide each whitewashed cottage in a cloud of fragile splendor; and the cuckoo’s note upon the breeze is wafted through the woods!  And summer, with its deep, dark green, and drowsy hum — when the rain-drops whisper solemn secrets to the listening leaves, and the twilight lingers in the lanes! ….”

And, of course, one can’t say enough of his humour:

“But that’s just the way.  I never do get particularly fond of anything in this world, but what something dreadful happens to it.  I had a tame rat when I was a boy, and I loved that animal as only a boy would love an old water rat; and, one day, it fell into a large dish of gooseberry-fool that was standing to cool in the kitchen, and nobody knew what become of the poor creature until the second helping.”

If you want a book to make you feel good, read a book by Jerome K. Jerome. His writing is refreshing, light, profound, humorous, beautiful, timeless and educational, all at the same time.  And you won’t stop laughing!

The Life of Saint Teresa of Avila by Herself

“As I have been commanded and left at liberty to describe at length my way of prayer, and the workings f the grace of our Lord within me, I could wish that I had been allowed at the same time to speak distinctly and in detail of my grievous sins and wicked life.”

Teresa was a Spanish mystic born in 1515 in Avila, Spain.  Early on, she showed a zealously pious nature but in her teens she began to be pulled in by worldly temptations and could not find peace, considering herself a miserable sinner.  When her father sent her to a convent school to be educated, she began her contemplative life.  Sickly throughout her life, Teresa used her discomfort as a means of shedding worldly cares and drawing closer to God.

This autobiography delves into Teresa’s prayer life (the four stages of prayer), union and trance, visions, temptations, the founding of the convent of St. Jospeh and the mercies of God.

I honestly have very little to say about this book.  Uncharacteristically I found my attention wandering numerous times while reading.  Was it because I dislike mystics?  Not at all.  Was it because the vocation of a nun is tedious.  No.  Was it Teresa’s writing?  Well …. perhaps …….  When reading a book, I usually look for an author to connect with the reader.  Some author’s are more successful than others in this area, but there has to be some connection to bring the writing to life.  In this case, Teresa’s prose remained lifeless on the page and while I could read about her experiences, it was very difficult for me to enter into them with her.  Because of her rather solitary life, she appeared no only to have little contact with outside cares and people, she also actively renounced both.  It was very challenging to understand someone who often stood in judgement of others.  I’ve never felt this attitude from other religious figures whom I’ve read about and I found it off-putting.  I also found Teresa seemed to write for herself rather than anyone else, so again, it was problematic establishing contact and therefore, any interest.

In spite of this rather lackluster read, I would still like to read her Interior Castle, which I’ve had on my list for awhile.  I can only hope that I’ll enjoy it more than this one.

translated by J. Cohen (I’ve heard that E. Alison Peers is a better translation)

Utopia by Thomas More

“The moste vyctoryous and tryumphante Kynge of Englande, Henry theight of that name, in all royal vertues Prince moste peerlesse, hadde of late in contrauersie with the right hyghe and myghtie king of Castell weightye matters, and of greate importaunce; for the debatement and final determination wherof the kinges Maieste sent me Ambassadour into flaunders, ioined in commission, and whom the kinges maiestie of late, to the greate reioysyng of all men, did preferre to the office of maister of the Rolles.”

I certainly promise not to write this review in Middle English but I thought I’d give you a taste of it.  And, no, I didn’t read the complete book in ME, I was able to get through about 1/5 of it and then changed to a modern English version.  And most happily, I might add.  The original Utopia was written in Latin in a fine emulation of Ciceronian Latin, yet More took it a step further in humour and playfulness.

Sir Thomas More, Lord Chancellor
Hans Holbein the Younger
source Wikipedia

Born in London in 1478, Thomas More was a very learned man and, if he had been able to follow his inclinations, would have been destined for the church.  His father, however, had other aspirations for him and, being a dutiful son, he conceded to his wishes and chose the law as his profession.  Unexpectedly, he was a marvellous success as a lawyer.  He soon had a thriving business and his extraordinary aptitude quickly brought him under scrutiny of the “higher-ups”. The political positions he was eventually offered were always accepted reluctantly, and More had a life-long dilemma with reconciling his loyalty to his sovereign and his loyalty as a Christian to his conscience.

As a Catholic, More opposed the Protestant Reformation.  Serving as Lord Chancellor under King Henry VIII, he was accused of inflicting harsh treatment on heretics, but he denied the accusations.  What is interesting is that his son-in-law at the time, was enticed by “Lutheran heresies”, and More’s reaction when speaking with his daughter, was surprisingly temperate: “Meg, I have borne a long time with thy husband.  I have reasoned and argued a long time with him and still given him my poor fatherly counsel; but I perceive none of all this can call him home again.  And, therefore, Meg, I will no longer dispute with him, not yet will I give him over; but I will go another way to work, and get me to God and pray for him.”

A man of honour and high standards, he would not even compromise for his family.  When one of his sons-in-law expected preferential treatment  because of More’s office, More stated, “If my father whom I dearly love were on one side and the devil, whom I sincerely hate, were on the other, the devil should have his rights.”

With King Henry VIII’s decision to divorce his queen, Catherine, More’s power began to unravel.  While remaining quiet publicly, he continued to support the Pope over the King, and when he was required to sign a letter asking the Pope to annul the marriage, More refused.  Henry soon began to isolate him. Eventually when More openly refused to acknowledge the annulment, Henry took action, arresting More for treason.  He was decapitated on July 6, 1535. When the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, heard of his death, he said, “Well, this we will say, if we had been the master of such a servant, we would rather have lost the best city of our dominions than have lost such a counsellor.”

Map: This picture was taken from
 one of the first editions of the book,
which is published online at the 
Bibliotheca Augustana

Probably inspired by his close friend, Desiderius Erasmus, Thomas More wrote Utopia in 1516 during an embassy to the Netherlands.  A very brief book, yet with a complex structure, More used himself and a character called Raphael Hythloday to present political philosophies that range from the insightful and wise, to the curiously peculiar.  In Book I, More crafts the setting for Utopia and then, through his character and Hythloday’s, offers a discourse on the evils and ills prevalent in European society.  While having a parallel set-up to Plato’s Republic (Morton = Cephalus; Hythlodaye = Socrates; lawyer = Thrasymachus), More adopts occurrences from his own day to structure the framework of Utopia and construct a more politically and socially organized text.   More uses this venue to chastize the actions of kings who use the country’s money for unproductive warmongering, and especially vilifies the practice of hanging thieves on the gallows, often for very petty infractions.  In Book II, More offers a detailed description of Utopia, its inhabitants and its societal structure. The Utopian community supports common property, slavery and religious tolerance.  Agriculture is the most treasured occupation but each Utopian is required to learn some other trade as well.  Finery is frowned upon, pre-marital sex and adultery punishable, and while atheists are allowed in Utopia, they are shunned because their views are counter-productive to the Utopian community.

More & Hythloday discuss Utopia
source

Scholars are still in disagreement as to More’s purpose when writing this book. On one hand, some purport that More’s intent was to write and endorse a treatise on communism and its implementation.   Others scholars differ in opinion; while the book had a basis in the condition of European politics, it was nevertheless written tongue-in-cheek.  Brewer in his Reign of Henry VIII, appears to support this view:

“Though the Utopia was not to be literally followed —- was no more than an abstraction at which no one would have laughed more heartily than More himself, if interpreted too strictly.  Utopia might serve to show a corrupt Christendom what good could be effected by the natural instincts of men, when following the dictates of natural prudence and justice.  If kings could never be elective in Europe, Utopia might show the advantage to a nation where kings were responsible to some other will than their own.  If property could never be common, Utopia might teach men how great was the benefit to society, when the state regarded itself as created for the wellbeing of all, and not of a class of a favoured few …….”

C.S. Lewis, a medieval and renaissance scholar, takes More’s book as a light holiday work, and this summation rings true, as More make some comments himself that were obscure, but appeared to poke fun at his work.  Lewis states:

 “….. it appears confused only so long as we are trying to get out of it what it never intended to give.  It becomes intelligible and delightful as soon as we take it for what it is —- a holiday work, a spontaneous overflow of intellectual high spirits, a revel of debate, paradox, comedy and (above all) of invention, which starts many hare and kills none …..  There is a thread of serious thought funning through it, an abundance of daring suggestions, several back-handed blows at European institutions …….  But he does not keep our noses to the grindstone.  He says many things for the fun of them, surrendering himself to the sheer pleasure of imagined geography, imagined language, and imagined institutions.  That is what readers whose interests are rigidly political do not understand: but everyone who has ever made an imaginary map responds at once.”

If we take into account some of the regional names in this work, the purpose may become clearer still.  “Utopia” literally means, “no place”; “Achoria” means “Nolandia”; “Polyleritae” means “Muchnonsense”; “Macarenses” means “Happiland”; and the river “Anydrus” means “Nowater”.  Even Raphael’s last name, Hythlodaeus, translates as “dispenser of nonense”.  Was More being ironic or serious?  I doubt we can ever know for sure.

In spite of the obscurity of the book and some of the controversies surrounding More, I loved both the author and this work.  He appeared to treat both his wives well, quite clearly loved his children, was well thought of and respected, and in spite of his position, chose to write a story that not only amused his readers, but allowed them to explore human nature and come to their own conclusions with regard to universal issues.  Thomas More is a man to be admired and Utopia is certainly a book to be read!

  • translated by Clarence H. Miller (English translation)
  • also Oxford Press “student” edition edited by J. Churton Collins (Middle English translation)

Further reading:  

The Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare

“What’s gone and what’s past help, should be past grief.”

Leontes, King of Sicilia and Polixenes, King of Bohemia, grew up together in a type of idyllic paradise, becoming as close as brothers.  At the opening of the play, Polixenes has been visiting Leontes and his queen, Hermoine, and is ready to return home after his nine-month stay.  Leontes begs his friend to remain longer, yet when he refuses, the king employs the queen’s pleading to try to change his mind.  And change his mind, Polixenes, does, unwittingly sparking a torrential storm of jealously within Leontes, as he, with Gollum-like psychosis, convinces himself that Hermoine has been unfaithful to him with his friend, and that the child she is about to give birth to does, in fact, belong to Polixenes.    Attempting to gain the sympathy of a Sicilian nobleman, Camillus, Leontes reveals his plot to poison the Bohemia king, but Camillus’ sensible and gentle nature will not allow him to commit such an atrocity and instead, he warns Polixenes and they both escape to the kingdom of Bohemia. Yet their escape leaves Hermoine at the mercy of her husband’s wrath and, against all the protests of his noblemen and, in particular, the wife of Antigonus, Paulina, Leontes tries Hermoine with the intent to condemn her to death.  While imprisoned she bears the child, a girl, who Leontes entrusts to Antigonus to abandon it in the wild, whereupon Antigonus leaves the child in the kingdom of Bohemia.  But tragedy strikes when part way through the hearing, Leontes learns of the death of his only son, Maxmillus.  Hermoine faints, then dies and Leontes suddenly realizes his foolish behaviour and repents.

Act II, Scene III
John Opie/Jean Pierre Simon
source Wikipedia

The child of Hermoine, Perdita, grows up in Bohemia as the daughter of a shepherd and we meet her again when she is sixteen and the love of Florizel, the son of Polixenes.  Through a quarrel with his father, Florizel and Perdita seek sanctuary in Sicilia, where Leontes has been spending the last 16 years doing penance for his harsh actions.  Paulina, in control of the situation as ever, makes Leontes promise not to marry unless a women in the likeness of Hermoine is approved by her, and he consents.  She then takes him to see a statue of his dead wife but lo!  This statue moves and Hermoine is alive again! There is much rejoicing and more when the identity of Perdita is discovered.  Winter has melted away from Sicilia and spring has come once again!

Perdita
Anthony Frederick Augustus Sandys
source Wikipedia

I really felt that this was certainly a weaker play of Shakespeare’s.  The audience was asked to immediately accept Leontes intemperate jealousy without any back-story or obvious proof of unwise behaviour on either the part of Hermoine or Polixenes.  What would cause a person who has always trusted and had the best relation with this friend, to suddenly question his character and honesty?  No other character believed in Hermoine’s guilt, yet Leontes persists in his delusion.

I also was taken aback by some of the staging of the play.  One senses that much of the important action takes place off stage:  the reason or backstory for Leontes’ jealousy; a reason for his immediate contrition; and shockingly, the climax with the reunion and reconciliations is not shown to us but told to us through a third party medium.  I’m still trying to grasp Shakespeare’s purpose in this structure.  The lack of all these critical ingredients cries lack of development and therefore, a lack of impact.  It’s not sensible, it’s not plausible and it’s certainly far from Shakespeare’s usually masterly grasp of his material and his audience.  I remain, puzzled.

I read this play for my Shakespeare: From the Page to the Stage course.

Richard II by William Shakespeare

” For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings ….”

Why do they call this play a “history”?  It was an absolutely tragedy …. gut-wrenchingly tragic, and I still feel depressed about the outcome.  Dare I say this is my favourite Shakespearean play so far?  Isn’t that weird?  An historical play about a king of whom I knew little about ……..  Yet Shakespeare’s verse is astonishingly beautiful.  The words flow around you like a bubbling river, conveying the anguish, terror, loss, loyalty, courage, deception, abandonment and hopelessness.  Not only is the play alive, but the story is alive and the words have a life of their own.

Richard II, King of England
portrait at Westminster Abbey (mid-1390s)
source Wikipedia

The play begins with a dispute between Henry Bullingbrook (Bolingbroke), cousin to King Richard, and Thomas Mowbray, Bullingbrook accusing Mowbray of misappropriating money and claiming that he was part of the murder of the Duke of Gloucester (which was probably orchestrated by Richard), yet before either can accomplish a duel, King Richard decides to banish both, Bullingbrook for 6 years and Mowbray for the term of his life.  John of Gaunt, is broken hearted at the exile of his son, Bullingbrook, and soon becomes sick with grief.  Upon Gaunt’s death, Richard decides to expropriate his estates and money, thereby defrauding Bullingbrook of his inheritance.  As Richard leaves to deal with the wars in Ireland, Bullingbrook gathers supporters and lands in England for the purpose, it appears, of regaining what is rightfully his.  Because Richard has taxed his subjects without remiss, and has fined the nobility for errors of their ancestors, most of the nobles rise up against him.

John of Gaunt
father of Henry IV
source Wikipedia

When Richard returns to England he is left with a small contingent of supporters including his cousin Aumerle, the Duke of York’s son, and lords Salisbury and Berkeley and other retainers.  Upon meeting with Bullingbrook, Richard relinquishes the throne to him, and Bullingbrook wastes no time in appointing himself King Henry IV.  Immediately, Richard is placed in prison.  When an uprising by Aumerle is discovered by his father and vehemently exposed, Aumerle is graciously pardoned by Henry IV, yet with dire threats towards the other conspirators.  In prison, Richard attacks his warden in frustration and is killed by Exton; when Henry hears about the murder, he is distressed and the play ends with his sad lament.

When I finished this play, I was so anguished by Richard’s sad end and how he’d been treated, yet reading some pre-history would have perhaps measured my emotions, as the good king was not entirely as innocent as he is made out.  Richard inherited the title of king when he was 10 years old and spent many years of his reign under the control of counsellors and advisors.  It wasn’t until later on, that he appeared to throw off their power and come into his own.  However, the fact that he taxed the populous to such extreme extents to finance his wars and royal coffers, contributed to the fact that he was not well loved or respected.  He was a king who ruled by impulse and without a justness that would have connected him to the people.  In fact, in the play, when he is walked through the streets, people dump garbage on his head, not a very fitting display for a monarch who truly believed that he was anointed by God.

Richard being taken into custody
by the Earl of Northumberland
source Wikipedia

Another consideration is that Shakespeare is writing drama.  He is known for taking the framework of history and then chopping and changing and perhaps, speculating for dramatic and political effect.   It is interesting that at the end of the play, Richard is seen as a pitiful figure who has voluntarily given up his kingship, and Bullingbrook condemns his murder, leaving the new king innocent of the crime and helpless to stop its culmination.  A very safe and uncontroversial tact on both sides for our playwright!

My favourite speech of Richard’s pulses with foresight, nostalgia and lament:

“For God’s sake let us sit upon the ground 
And tell sad stories of the death of kings:
How some have been deposed, some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed,
Some poisoned by their wives, some sleeping killed.
All murdered.  For within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court and there the antic sits,
Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp,
Allowing him a breath, a little scene,
To monarchize, be feared and kill with looks,
Infusing him with self and vain conceit,
As if this flesh which walls about our life,
Were brass impregnible.  And humoured thus,
Comes at the last and with a little pin
Bores through his castle walls, and farewell king!”

As Richard begins to realize the possible outcome of the circumstances and tries to reconcile them with his belief that a king is sanctioned by God, we see his syntax begin to break down, with his pronouns of “we”, being reduced to “I”.  It is truly pitiful.

Richard II
Anonymous impress from the 16th century
source Wikipedia

On a political note, this play was used to stir up populous support for Robert, earl of Essex, Queen Elizabeth I’s one-time favourite, during his rebellion against her.  On the eve of the uprising, his supporters paid for the play, Richard II, to be performed at the Globe Theatre, but Essex’s attempt to raise a coup against her failed. Retaliation was swift, however.  On February 25, 1601, Essex faced his execution and was beheaded on the Tower Green.  His was the last beheading at the Tower of London.

This was another wonderful experience with one of Shakespeare’s historical plays.  I had expected to like them least in the canon, but they are certainly quickly becoming by far my favourites!

Watched:  The Hollow Crown:  Richard II

Othello by William Shakespeare

“O, beware, my lord, of jealousy;
It is the green-ey’d monster, which doth mock
The meat it feeds on.”

Othello the Moor is lauded over Venice for his help in attempts to rid them of the pesky Turks in their battle over Cyprus.  Yet when Othello weds the beautiful Venetian Desdemona in secret, some opinions of his prowess change, notably those of Desdemona’s father.  And unbeknownst to Othello, Iago, his third-in-command, is plotting a dastardly revenge for being passed over for promotion, the position being given to Othello’s loyal lieutenant, Cassio.  Hence proceeds perhaps the most shocking example of manipulation in literature, as Iago takes possession of Othello’s mind and emotions, like a beast taking possession of its prey, transforming our noble Moor from a honest, straightforward, respected man into an enraged, vengeful monster who believes every evil of his innocent wife, including her unfaithfulness with his second-in-command, Cassio.  Othello’s jealousy manages to eclipse anything within our understanding.

Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud
ben Mohammed Anoun,
Moorish ambassador to Elizabeth I
suggest inspiration for Othello
source Wikipedia

Iago reveals that, as well as the injury of being passed over for promotion, he also harbours a suspicion that Othello has been sleeping with his wife, Emilia, who is Desdemona’s lady-in-waiting.  There is no proof of this accusation in the play, and it is likely that Iago is expecting people to act with the same lack of integrity and base bestial urges, that he himself would, in the same circumstances.

How does a gentle and admired military leader allow himself to be reduced to a maddened beast, his fury leading him to commit the worst atrocity against a perfectly innocent human being, and one who has loved and supported him through their short marriage?  What hidden button inside Othello’s psyche has Iago discovered and pushed, knowing that it will make him snap?

Maria Malibran as Rossini’s
Desdemona
Françoise Bouchot
source Wikipedia

Certainly there are various issues that come into play and work against Othello.  He is used to being a commander, yet is unused to being a husband and obviously, when in love, is out of his depth.  Perhaps he sees Desdemona as a possession that he has conquered and, instead of being able to relax in his marriage, he, like a military leader, feels that he must wage battle to keep her.  And when difficulties do arise, instead of trying to search out the truth, he acts like a military leader and attempts to “conquer the enemy”.  He has insecurities that lead to him being a willing pawn of Iago’s machinations. The jealousy that Iago is able to set aflame within him, corrupts his normal good sense and his actions become intemperate.  I certainly have compassion for his state, as I believe these aspects have severely affected his decison-making and emotional state, but, that said, he is still human and he still has the option of choice.  He knows right from wrong, yet he decides to allow his emotions to rule and himself to be led down the tragic path of mindless jealousy.  In reality, he allows himself to turn into a beast.

Othello & Desdemona
Antonio Muñoz Degrain
source Wikipedia

Shakespeare’s exhibits an uncanny ability to weave endless possibilities into a Gordian knot of drama and draw the reader into his poetic spell.  Will we ever know exactly what motivated Othello and his spiral from an honourable man to a madly jealous murderer.  Will we ever understand why he believed Iago without any “ocular proof”?  What happened to the military commander that must have been used to exhibiting self-control?  Do intense emotions subvert our ability to act as a human beings?  There are so many avenues to explore and no obvious or set answers.

Of all the characters in the play, my favourite character was Emilia.  While she remains surprisingly unaware of the plotting and intrigues of her husband, upon realizing the truth, she becomes the voice of the audience, who has until this point been mute in horror, and satisfyingly spews vile recriminations on the head of Othello.

T.S. Eliot had a different view of the last actions of Othello than many older critics:

“I have always felt that I have never read a more terrible exposure of human weakness — of universal human weakness — than the last great speech of Othello.  I am ignorant whether any one else has ever adopted this view, and it may appear subjective and fantastic in the extreme.  It is usually taken on its face value, as expressing the greatness in defeat of a noble but erring nature. What Othello seems to me to be doing in making this speech is cheering himself up. He is endeavouring to escape reality, he has ceased to think about Desdemona, and is thinking about himself. Humility is the most difficult of all virtues to achieve; nothing dies harder than the desire to think well of oneself. Othello succeeds in turning himself into a pathetic figure, by adopting an aesthetic rather than a moral attitude, dramatising himself against his environment. He takes in the spectator, but the human motive is primarily to take in himself. I do not believe that any writer has ever exposed this bovarysme, the human will to see things as they are not, more clearly than Shakespeare.”

I read this play as part of a Shakespeare: From the Page to the Stage course that I’m taking online, and it’s definitely moved in among my favourites!

Laurence Fishburne & Kenneth Branaugh
Othello 1995
source Wikipedia