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...This poem is part of an irreconcilable debate Herbert had with himself over the paradoxes of religious poetry (art and music will be similarly affected). How does one steer between the Scylla of wasting a God-given talent and fobbing God off with less than one’s best, and the Charybdis of falling in love, Narcissus-like, with one’s own eloquence and using the medium to show off rather than harnessing it for a divine purpose? Other poems, like the ‘Jordan’ pair and ‘Dulnesse’ are on a similar theme. Does writer’s block matter if the foundation of your belief, ‘Thou art still my God’, is intact?...

'George Herbert and "The Forerunners"': does literary skill in a religious poem dignify the subject or feed the writer's vanity? (from WOOL-GATHERER 1)


...I think of Homer as a croupier: he deals the audience cards, which accumulate into a hand which gives you a complete story. Many of the cards are a bit dog-eared and faded – these are the formulaic building-blocks which do so much of the narrative donkey-work, the oft-handled devices of the ancient oral tradition with which he worked. But then, from time to time, he slips in a pristine card which takes your breath away when you turn it over, so fresh are its colours, so subtle the design....

'Rites of Passage': the coming-of-age of Telemachus in Homer's The Odyssey. (from WOOL-GATHERER 1)

...So what tasks are appropriate in Paradise? Pure intellectual activity worries Milton because speculation needs to be confined within bounds, and even the angels are unsure what limits have been assigned to humanity. Practical jobs are healthier, but are also restricted by the user-friendliness of the environment which is liable to render them redundant. Milton took his cue from Genesis, which states that Adam was put in the garden to ‘dress’ it....

'A Gourd of Grape-juice ...': gardening as moral behaviour - John Milton, George Herbert and Ruth Pitter. (from WOOL-GATHERER 2)

...The precise historian may scoff, but I think they put something in the water in the 17th century. The whole country seems to have gone a bit loopy. Eccentric individuals, eccentric sects abound. How would you assess the sales potential of a poem in Latin describing the wanderings through the North of England of a fornicating tosspot? What if a translation in execrable doggerel is placed by its side?...

'Orcus Porcus and Good Times in Keighley': the eccentric seventeenth century picaresque poem of Richard Brathwait. (from WOOL-GATHERER 2)

...One of the most infuriating things about Bond is that, time and again, only he stands between the civilised world and a catastrophic assault on its values and existence, but he still finds the leisure to demonstrate his adroitness with bra-straps. Some may call it multi-tasking – I call it unprofessional. Looked at in a historical context, though, what he is displaying is a key quality in the Renaissance hero – sprezzatura. This is the art of exhibiting versatility without the appearance of effort. A gentleman could not be, or be seen to be, an anorak or a swot. You breezed adaptably through life, at home equally in the council-chamber, the battle-field, the casino and the boudoir....

'Universal Export: Still a Good Investment?' James Bond examined. (from WOOL-GATHERER 3)    

...Sappho still haunts people two-and-a-half millennia on. The Greeks were champion chauvinists - at least Islamic culture has produced many tender love-lyrics -  but even they recognised that she was a master. Everyone who discovers her soon discovers the melancholy fact that her collected works ran to nine volumes in the library at Alexandria, and now there are only glittering shards...

'Always Read the Wrapping Paper ...': New discoveries in a poem by Sappho. (from WOOL-GATHERER 3)

...Follow me, if you will, as I flutter around a mountain that dominates the landscape of human thought, and alight briefly on a few outcrops. One of the most familiar ideas in philosophy is the notion that the human organism is a structure divided within itself, the angel vying with the beast for supremacy, or the soul at war with the body. Our immortal selves are trapped in a decaying but ferociously retentive envelope which demands its fulfilment in the darkness of food, sex and sleep, while our better half struggles to ascend towards the light. Christianity, and the Greeks before that, has made this a commonplace. When we weigh up different courses of action, selfish or altruistic, pragmatic or idealistic, immoral or virtuous, we conduct an internal debate. This dialogue has become its very own specialised artistic genre....

'Split Personalities': the battle between soul and body - Andrew Marvell, W.B. Yeats and Margaret Atwood. (from WOOL-GATHERER 4)

...One of the most intriguing parts of the Orkeyinga Saga is the pilgrimage to the Holy Land undertaken by Earl Rognvald Kali Kolsson. Rognvald was a predatory thug, naturally, otherwise his tenure would have been ephemeral, but he is one of a handful of characters in the catalogue of slaughters, vendettas and treachery to have a personality you can walk round. He has a sense of humour, with a taste for practical jokes; in a world of dizzying coup and counter-coup he has the rare quality of patience; he is a poet, much given to impromptu epigrams. Other Earls travel – to Shetland, Norway, Wales, Ireland, the Isles of Scilly – but only to plunder, or do some Machiavellian networking. The idea of a Norseman in the Mediterranean is odd enough; that it should be ostensibly for purposes other than murder, rape and pillage is odder still. What happens when North meets South?...

'A Holiday Romance': an intriguing clash of cultures in the Orkneyinga Saga and the poems of George Mackay Brown. (from WOOL-GATHERER 4)

...Now that most children are over- rather than under-fed, do they fantasise much about food any more? Or do the editors of comics deliberately censor greedy consumption as they have outlawed the corporal punishment which characters like Roger the Dodger and Minnie the Minx expected almost every episode? Purely in the interests of research, I bought a Beano to see if all was changed, changed utterly. Actually, its world was still reassuring and familiar, except that Roger the Dodger was ‘doing’, i.e. plagiarising, his maths homework on a laptop now, and Dennis the Menace was making a hoax call to the police on a mobile. But there was no food motif to be seen. Just chance, or confirmation of a theory?...

'Everything Tastes Better ...': Celebrating the picnic - Cuthbert Bede, Kenneth Grahame, E.M. Forster and The Beano. (from WOOL-GATHERER 5)
...If true (and I only submit it tentatively), this theory that the play is a covert defence of Catholic patriotism and a plea for mutual religious toleration would support the contention that Shakespeare was himself a closet Catholic, and I have never seen any intrinsic problem with this. At least the theory gives some point and poignancy, and a bracing whiff of risk, to the otherwise feeble inconsequentiality of the way he treated such messy, intransigent political material....

'The National Debt': Political Themes and Undercurrents in Shakespeare's Cymbeline. (from WOOL-GATHERER 5)

Studdert Kennedy was an undistinguished poet, as I think he would have admitted himself. The art was always subservient to the substance. However, I think you could learn almost as much about the war from him as from Owen, were it not that he gives the liberal pacifists a bumpy ride and will persist in referring things to God (the tiresome fellow), so he seems unlikely to get back into print, let alone shoulder his way into the curriculum.

Will children be told that not everyone saw the war as a locking of horns by colonial powers jockeying for supremacy and hypocritically hi-jacking moral justifications to sell their greed? That not everyone said, "We're here because we're here because we're here"? Studdert Kennedy was a socialist, and he would have been on red alert for false motives, but he didn't doubt the war's righteousness... 

'If The Huns Don't Get You, The Woodbines Will': the poetry of 'Woodbine Willie' (from  WOOL-GATHERER 6)

So what, they muse, chewing their stylus, quill, biro or mouse (?), would be my Dream Home, and how would I live in it? Many of you have now been let into John Pomfret's secret, which he confessed in 1700 in his poem 'The Choice' ... A rural location is obligatory, of course. A garden, a rivulet shaded with limes or sycamores, a summer-house containing a library, a vista of comfortable countryside. The simple life: 'A frugal plenty should my table spread.' Would he go as far as Herrick, who suggests that he has found the perfect contentment in his humble home, fuelled by a diet of worts, purslane, watercress and beetroot? 

'Des Res, Requiring Refurbishment': literary ideal homes (from  WOOL-GATHERER 6)

The last words echoing in the ears of the audience who have experienced the whole dizzying, day-long switchback ride of the cycle are the taunts of Tutivillus and his mates herding the wicked off to their permanent residence, and the loving praise of the Lord expressed by a representative of the souls destined for bliss; eighty lines of the former, eight of the latter. There are sometimes valid doctrinal reasons for this, but in literature the Devil does consistently get the juicier share. 

'He's Behind Yer!': the curriculum vitae of a busy demon (from  WOOL-GATHERER 7)

Now and again I turn to Wodehouse, because 'human kind / Cannot bear very much reality'. (Swankily larding one's prose with literary quotations, though, would cut no ice with Jeeves, who could identify a gobbet of 'Four Quartets' at 100 paces.) A dog-eared Penguin (as it were) from a charity shop is cheaper than most other forms of analgesia, and lasts longer than a box of Maltesers. The danger lies in the possibilities of distraction. If therapy is the aim, one does not want to be diverted into an analysis of the engine which drives the smoothly-tooled prose, nor should one inventorise the blatantly repetitive ingredients of the plots.

'Hello Sky Hello Trees': a match-making hint offered to P.G. Wodehouse (from  WOOL-GATHERER 7)

The novel is regarded, I know, as a Boy’s Own yarn, but it seems to me a poor advertisement for the roaming life. A young reader may well discount the earnestness of Crusoe senior, who tries to dissuade his son from going to sea. Crusoe junior, however, ignores not only his father but his own reason and the omens which keep tugging at his sleeve, such as storms, shipwreck and capture by Muslim pirates. He is compared to Jonah, a man accursed, a magnet that draws down God’s wrath as soon as he steps on a boat. Crusoe sums up his own adventures as ‘a life of misery’, ‘a dreadful misspent life’. He talks, not of wilfulness, but of wickedness.

‘SEE THE WORLD, LEARN D.I.Y.’: should a boy read Robinson Crusoe? (from WOOL-GATHERER 8)

Is it, in fact, almost inevitable that the glamorous outlaw should be a fiction constructed to fulfil one of the functions for which literature exists: as a lightning-conductor, which draws our perpetual anger at institutional injustice away from the fabric of the necessary institution to spend itself harmlessly on fantasy? Ask the local people about glamour who live in the orbit of the Indian dacoit or the pseudo-Marxist gangs in South America or the blood-curdling bush-warlords in Africa with their drug-crazed children’s armies. Thank goodness for literature, but we should recognise it for what it is.

‘JUST MISUNDERSTOOD R.I.P.’: Ned Kelly, Robin Hood, and the dubious charms of highwaymen (from WOOL-GATHERER 8)

One difficulty about using Brobdingnag as a foil is that it is geographically isolated – otherwise how would the rest of us have missed noticing a race of beings twelve times bigger than ourselves? If the country is isolated, then it is unlikely to be Christian. Tricky problems entangle the satirist. Manifestly, neither knowledge of the Gospel nor an Established Church is any sort of guarantee of a nation in satisfactory moral health; even the argument that we would be still worse without it conflicts with the citation of the ‘noble savage’ as a corrective to corrupt civilisation. But can a godless or ‘idolatrous’ nation be an exemplar of good government?

‘FEE-FO-FUM AND THE PESTOS’: the place of religion in the Utopias of Swift, More and J.F. Bray (from WOOL-GATHERER 9)

A feature of the [Cyclops] legend, in both senses, is that single eye ... Dig through enough anthropological strata, and surely the Cyclops was a sun-god, which might make anyone boastful, and disrespectful to another belief system. When Homer’s Odysseus optimistically invokes Zeus as the patron of hospitality to remind Polyphemus of his obligation to welcome strangers rather than devour them, the giant derisively rejects any claim the Olympians might make on him – “for we are their superiors by far.”

UGLY DOES AS UGLY IS’: the Polyphemus legend in Theocritus, Ovid, Gongora etc. (from WOOL-GATHERER 9)

Are you on the side of ‘cakes and ale’ as opposed to prissy joylessness? One hardly dares say otherwise. But the chief proponent of fun is a boor and a greedy con-man, an alcoholic good-for-nothing with a deeply nasty streak. Try living with Toby Belch bellowing drunken songs at midnight in your house. Fun people are not necessarily a joy to be around, and I don’t think they experience much real joy themselves, as Shakespeare knew. Let us ask Olivia, a young girl who can have no natural affinity with her steward, what she thinks of him: ‘I would not have him miscarry for the half of my dowry.’

‘BEWARE OF FUN-LOVERS WITH G.S.O.H.’: in defence of Malvolio (from WOOL-GATHERER 10)

It would not be sensible to call the Emperor Marcus Aurelius unhinged without being separated from him by nearly two millennia. All the same, he might have remonstrated more in sorrow than anger instead of having me crucified, because what is striking about the so-called ‘Meditations’, which were really unconnected entries in a diary of thoughts and emotions, is the almost complete absence of any colour given to them by his status. The humility seems absolutely genuine, yet we know that he was leading a life that threw up practical challenges to his ethical code which no philosopher ruminating cosily in his Academy needs to confront.

‘DEAR DIARY: WROTE POEM. RULED COUNTRY’: some royal authors – James I of Scotland, Alfred, Marcus Aurelius (from WOOL-GATHERER 10)


There is nothing chummy or cosy about him, and the modern reader is certain to find him bigoted at times. He was, though, absolutely uncompromising and fearless; a ferocious satirist, as scathing about the ecclesiastical establishment as any Lollard or Luther would be; genuinely indignant at injustice and sympathetic to the poor; eloquent even through the bluntness of medieval Latin; and, above all, a man whose judgments and rhetoric were brought to life by the quality of his observation. John Bromyard kept his eyes open.

‘THE FRIAR WHO? EXPERIENCE’: the medieval preacher John Bromyard (from WOOL-GATHERER 11)

There is a superficial link between the New Man who gets in touch with his emotions and is unashamed to blub, and the Man of Feeling, who sprinkles or drenches every episode of his tale with tears. The difference is that the latter weeps out of pity for others, not as a concomitant of narcissistic self-contemplation. The hero, dewy-eyed Mr Harley, would surely not change a nappy, as New Man supposedly volunteers to do with cheesy readiness; but he would pay a nurse to do so if an orphaned, squalling infant came into his orbit to stimulate his concern.

‘WHAT DID THEY DO BEFORE KLEENEX?’: Henry Mackenzie and the Cult of Sensibility (from WOOL-GATHERER 11)

You may have suspected already that this is not primarily a play about artificial languages, however. In Soviet Czechoslovakia, the imposition of gobbledygook which purports to replace the inadequacy of common speech and creates a new cringing culture of enthusiasts who in fact disbelieve in it and cannot adequately grasp it has a pretty obvious allegorical significance. The details of Ptydepe are amusing side-swipes at intellectual castles in the air, but what really matters in the play is how its usage is implemented, and how the employees of the organisation align themselves with it.

‘TAKE A LETTER, MISS SMITH – ANY LETTER’: an invented language causes havoc in Havel’s The Memorandum (fromWOOL-GATHERER 12)

You’ll have to look hard to find him in any anthology, and the general critical judgment seems to be that he sacrificed a promisingly unusual perspective in order to become a sausage-machine of imitative, genteel insipidities. But before he did so, he wrote, at the suggestion of the local parson, ‘The Thresher’s Labour’, which rubs the reader’s nose in the artificiality of the pastoral convention. Notice how he begins on a heroic note (carefully exhibiting some of his hard-earned, self-taught stock of erudition), playing up to the image of jolly, bucolic brawn, before the work rhythms slacken under exhaustion ...

THE POT, THE FLAIL AND THE PEN’: two 18th century poets aspiring beyond their station – Mary Leapor and Stephen Duck (from WOOL-GATHERER 12)

One of my most prized possessions has been subjected to some ill-treatment. The contents of a coffee-pot seem to have been poured over it; it bears the prints of a thumb greasy with, perhaps, a mutton pie; its edges are ragged, and it is sallow with age. Shabby as it may look, I miss a beat every time I read: ‘Printed for BERNARD LINTOTT, at the Cross-Keys, between the Two Temple-Gates, in Fleet-street.’ Bernard Lintott: one of the most famous publishers in England, the intimate of most of the Augustan greats, the means whereby Alexander Pope rose to eminence.

‘MUCH BETTER THAN SHE MIGHT BE’: Nicholas Rowe’s Tragedy of Jane Shore (from WOOL-GATHERER 13)

Why do killers have such problems with killing in cold blood if they ‘know’ they are in the right? Is it a strange outgrowth of chivalry, or are the altered odds a challenge to God to prove that right, rather than might, has satisfactorily rounded off the story? I’m sure you can think of other examples. The guy with the droopy moustache and black hat always has to go for his gun first and be outdrawn. As a pragmatist, I would in such situations prefer the motto: ‘Never give a sucker an even break.’

‘PLAYING OFF HANDICAPS’: Conan Doyle’s ambivalent views on justice (from WOOL-GATHERER 13)

As a reconnaissance scout for Absurdism, the play is impervious to normal critical criteria. Ubu, though, was half-recognised at the time, and became grimly prophetic: a gargantuan slob, greedy, devious, cowardly, bullying, vicious, crude – and rather jolly. He makes ambition overtly grotesque, thus commenting on the relatively respectable faces of such behaviour; although should we really need another lesson after watching Macbeth? Yes, we do – and we still never learn. The choice of egotistical, monstrous tyrants who have subscribed to Ubu’s philosophy is quite wide, but the ogre who comes closest to him, in my opinion, is Idi Amin.

‘HE SWEARS BY HIS GREEN CANDLE’: Père Ubu uses language (from WOOL-GATHERER 14)

As a side dish, he would bake a frothy little soufflé of young romance, but the highly-seasoned meat and potatoes of his novels is the talk, or varieties of hot air, emitted by an assortment of guests who foregather at an eccentrically-run country house and between them enable Peacock to box the compass of modish intellectual preoccupations, claptrap and idées fixes. You certainly don’t read Peacock for the story, but for the urbane, sometimes convoluted, but precise style, for the knack he has of dealing in parody and caricature but also managing to inhabit and express colourfully a wide range of ideas which he evidently finds absurd – and for the fact that he is often very funny.

‘THE VIRTUOSO OF CROTCHETS’: the novel as conversation piece (from WOOL-GATHERER 14)

... Spenser’s solution to the Irish Problem was the usual ‘kick-ass’ contemporary one: more troops, more cold steel, a scorched-earth policy to starve the aboriginals into submission, and more colonists to redress the racial imbalance. the predilection of this ‘salvage’ tribe for rebelling ungratefully against attempts to civilise it is aired in the poetry, too. The topic of Book V of The Faerie Queene is Justice. Although equity and mercy make appearances, it is the effective, condign punishment of wrongdoing which is prominent: ‘For power is the right hand of Justice.’

‘HOW DO YOU SPELL THAT, MRS S?': Spenser woos his wife and frets about Ireland. (from WOOL-GATHERER 15)

... To his worshippers Dionysos offers what Euripides calls ‘euphrosyne’, which is glossed in the dictionary as ‘mirth’ or ‘merriment’. This is not to be despised, of course,  but Ken Dodd could do the same, and it is a modest sensation if placed on the same scale as bliss or communion with the divine; the word actually means ‘being well in heart and/or mind’ (‘phren’ can be either), which is an elastic concept. A more apparently surprising benefit, considering the hyped-up state of maenads under the influence, is ‘hesychia’, which is ‘tranquillity’.

‘WARBLING HIS NATIVE WOODNOTES WILD': the cult of Pan undergoes a revival.  (from WOOL-GATHERER 15)


If you allow yourself to start writing like a wounded elephant dragging itself to the Pachyderm’s Graveyard to expire, the same problem may arise which your parents warned you about when you pulled faces: the wind may change and you’ll stay like that. ‘Fools regret my poetic change – from my “enchanting early lyrics”’, he sneered, professing himself delighted with Marxist dialectic as a replacement, but it is instructive to see what happened when he tried to write in the old vein at about this time, in a poem called ‘Of my first love’. He wants to sing – but his voice is cracked, he has lost his sense of form, and the poem misfires badly. The Muse is a shy girl, and doesn’t like megaphones.

‘OF POTATOES AND PAPERCLIPS’:  Poems by Hugh MacDiarmid etc. (from WOOL-GATHERER 16)


What she can do very ably is to manipulate the feelings of the other characters in the play and of many members of the audience into feeling sympathy for her wrongs, helped by the fact that the ratting husband in question, Jason, is patronising, smug and pedantic, while the incandescence of her pain makes her glow like a martyr in the flames. But watch this woman, Euripides warns. She uses fatalism as a smoke-screen. ‘Que sera’, ‘It’s meant to be’, ‘That’s how the cookie crumbles’: how often is that said with complacency, inevitability cited as an endorsement of what we want to happen, or even what we are forcing to happen.

‘WHO MADE THE COOKIE CRUMBLE?’:  Necessity used as a moral excuse in Euripides’ Medea (from WOOL-GATHERER 16)


The Princess is a fairy-tale parable about sexual equality and the education of women; the preamble shows that worthwhile social advance depends on much more than setting up Colleges of F.E. for the female middle-class, and admits that Science rather than the Arts may need to be the basis of curricula aimed at the less privileged. Tennyson was endearingly enthusiastic about Sir Walter’s catering for the pleasure and instruction of the masses; although no radical or democrat, he took the image of the thousand-headed multitude, a scathingly negative one in Shakespeare, who saw the mob as a monster made up of a conglomeration of wildly contradictory prejudices, and sees it as a huge, and so far almost untapped, social resource.

‘ADULT EDUCATION AND THE NEW UTOPIA’:   Tennyson describes a Workers’ Open Day in ‘The Princess’  (from WOOL-GATHERER 17)

Kennings, being picturesque, have attracted more attention than their actual frequency in Old English warrants, but they give distinction to the most important aspects of Norse culture. There are of course war-terms, sometimes grimly jocular, such as ‘æsc-plega’ (‘ash-play’, meaning ‘battle’ – ash was the wood used for spear-shafts) or ‘hilde-nædre’ (‘battle-adder’, i.e. ‘arrow’); but religion has some powerful ones, such as ‘sige-beam’ (‘victory-tree’, the Cross), ‘Soð-cyning’ (‘Truth-King’, God) and ‘wyrm-sele’ (‘serpent-hall’, Hell) ...

‘LEOÞCWIDE’:   Anglo-Saxon influences on Seamus Heaney  (from WOOL-GATHERER 17)

Shakespeare knew what he was paid to do, and gave the customers what they wanted, double value. The Crispin’s Day speech is immortal. As he took the coin, however, he did what he always did, which is why he can be trusted – he turned it over. Thus we see that Henry’s claim to the French throne is wire-drawn genealogical spin-doctoring, and that he is aware of himself as a usurper’s son even in his own land ... that Henry threatens and commits atrocities with no chivalric glamour in them; that the strategically limited successes which he achieved would be dissipated in no time – etcetera.

‘ ENGLAND 0  FRANCE 0’:   English victories in the 100 Years’ War seen from different sides  (from WOOL-GATHERER 18)


The disadvantages are manifest of an agent hamstrung by chauvinism, restricted social milieu, relative physical weakness, and the non-existence of such posts in real life. Both of these intrepid ladies, on the other hand, make the point that they have compensatory social skills, especially in unlocking female gossip, and that they have access to environments closed to men: Holmes, with all his talents for impenetrable disguise, would have had difficulty impersonating a novice in a convent, for example.

‘A FAIR COP?’:   Victorian female detectives and Gothic predecessors  (from WOOL-GATHERER 18)

It is probably not too difficult for a skilled writer to mimic Austen’s style, and you can have fun showing off your ‘period’ awareness, describing the local amusement at Darcy installing one of those new-fangled water-closet things at Pemberley, for example. But the crime writer cannot help intruding: to James, the phrase ‘the prime suspect in a murder inquiry’ is as natural as ‘the sun rose the next morning’, but it jars amidst this prose; and ‘nobble’, as in ‘nobbling the jury’, is several decades too early, according to Partridge’s Dictionary of Slang. Quibbles such as these can always be found by the picky, and reviewers use them to assert one-upmanship; more subtle is the way James instinctively speeds up the syntax during passages of exciting or busy narrative, impatient with Austen’s natural rhythms.

 SANG FROID, SANG CHAUD’:  PD James, Death Comes to Pemberley, and the art of Jane Austen pastiche.  (from WOOL-GATHERER 19)

There is an Alcestis moment, too, in Much Ado, where Claudio, who regards himself as bereaved, is confronted by a veiled lady whom he is expected to take by the hand – and, indeed, marry. Like Admetus, he is the target of what could be described as a practical joke; it is not, of course, intended as such exactly, but the teasing of Claudio’s expectations is both a gentle punishment for his folly in slandering Hero and a rite of passage – it signals a new start for two young people chastened into greater maturity. Once unshrouded, Hero does speak – she never, of course, died. But a Christian background lends solemnity to the language of metamorphosis: ‘Come, lady, die to live’; ‘One Hero died defil’d, but I do live.’

‘SHRUGGING OFF THE SHROUD’:  Coming back from the dead.  (from WOOL-GATHERER 19

Mantel’s portrayal of Wolsey is a brilliant, attractive and plausible case study. If she puts the boot into Thomas More with rather obvious malice, he probably deserved it. Anne Boleyn is observed with a wealth of external detail, but no psychological delving; however, someone can be both devious and shallow, and she is a welcome alternative to Shakespeare’s butter-wouldn’t-melt little maid. There is an exquisite thumbnail sketch of Princess Mary (whoops – Lady Mary – you can be disembowelled for that kind of slip), but Queen Katharine (the Dowager Princess, I mean, put that thumbscrew down) is left shadowy.

RUNNING WITH THE WOLVES’:  Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall.    (from WOOL-GATHERER 20)


What tickles me is the way in which a terse, harsh tale of the supernatural has been appreciated for its dramatic, ghoulish potential but has been battered shapeless by domestication. A publisher’s hack relayed a classic ballad, even borrowing verses wholesale, using the standard ballad form (quatrains of alternating 8- and 6-syllable lines) – and yet produced a hybrid utterly alien to the culture from which the original sprang. A more self-consciously literary parallel is offered by the passages of pastiche which Restoration and 18th century adaptors shoehorned into Shakespeare plays to improve and civilise them.

DOMESTICATING THE DEMON’:  A tale of adultery and diabolism descends from ballad to broadside.   (from WOOL-GATHERER 20)

Firmilian, however, is one of those conscientious (or rather literal-minded) artists who are unable to do justice to a theme unless they have immersed themselves in it fully beforehand; we are familiar with actors who need to hop everywhere for six months in their daily life so that they can play Long John Silver. How, asks Firmilian, can I convey crushing guilt without feeling it? So, in the interests of his Art, he weighs up the pros and cons of various potential murder victims. The annoying thing, though, is that, having poisoned three friends, pushed another off a pillar, and blown up an entire cathedral with gunpowder, he remains unscarred by 'Keen-beaked Remorse' - indeed, he feels rather pleased with himself - so he is forced to acknowledge that he and his topic may not be suited to each other ...

'SACRIFICES ON THE ALTAR OF ART': W.E. Aytoun makes fun of the 'Spasmodic' poets. (from WOOL-GATHERER 21)


In 1795, an astonishing cache of Shakespeariana turned up, exhumed from a trunk quietly mouldering in oblivion in the mansion of a publicity-shy gentleman known for all time to the world only as Mr H, who had allowed his trove to surface through the diligent intervention of a lawyer's clerk still in his teens who had been engaged to assist him in some business matters. The papers included a formal declaration of Shakespeare's adherence to Protestantism, which firmly squashed those nasty suspicions that he was a closet Papist, and a poetic billet-doux to Anne Hathaway, which reassured those who felt uncomfortable that his marriage might have been loveless as well as mostly long-distance ... 

'PROSE VERSE ALLE ALL IS NAUGHTE': the Shakespeare forgeries of William-Henry Ireland. (from WOOL-GATHERER 21)


George and Martha in Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? have one of the best-known bad marriages in literature. Martha's pseudo-hospitable insistence that a young couple, hunky Nick and ditzy Honey, should come round for getting-to-know-you, late-night drinkies is one of the best-known literary Invitations from Hell. The guests are not entirely innocent victims in the malicious party games orchestrated by the hosts, and their own marriage is showing cracks that may rapidly widen, but they are in a sense our proxies, because they and we must spend a tiring evening faced with a bewildering choice of approaches to - history.

'WHO KNOWS THE DIFFERENCE, EH, TOOTS?': philosophies of history and truth in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  (from WOOL-GATHERER 22)


Who is the real Olivia? The beribboned coquette? The naive idolater of a handsome face, flashy clothes and fluent address? The fallen woman? No - it's that unselfconscious lass, dishevelled, red in the face, bellowing her head off, enjoying a bit of simple fun - Flamborough fun which her parson father is fundamentally too wise to deprecate. That is the young woman that a sensible man would fall in love with and live with. Everyone, including Primrose, is mortified to be caught in these unguarded, undignified attitudes; but Goldsmith knows better, and wants us to see it his way.

'TESTED IN THE FIRE': Dr Primrose and his neighbours in Goldsmith's The Vicar of Wakefield.  (from WOOL-GATHERER 22)


Jonson's view of humanity was reductive, behind the ingenious farce. Big fish prey on little fish, little fish prey on plankton, and the supplies of plankton are replenished inexhaustibly. It is a world of cony-catchers and coneys - swindlers and dupes - bound into a symbiotic relationship by covetousness, with lust and vanity in attendance. Jonson had been mining this fruitful lode for 20 years, but knew that the framework needed novelties to tickle the audience's palate. So the gimmick this time was to imagine that an ambitious minor demon has been grudgingly given permission by Satan to come to Earth for a day ...

'RESISTING EVERYTHING EXCEPT TEMPTATION': Devils paying a visit to Earth.  (from WOOL-GATHERER 23)

The poems have a distinctive flavour, but only twisted, paradoxical definitions of it occur to me, not very helpfully: droll melancholy, listless acumen, disengaged pathos, a shifting between minute, mundane observation through a tinted lens and cloudy commentary summed up in his own phrase, 'Philosophy through a paper straw'. His eye flicks across people and places (nearly all urban), registering impressions but with no certain sense whether they are intrinsically significant or not: a photographer snapping away and then examining the images as they develop in the dark room to find compositional values emerging in them ...

'MAD AS THE PROVERBIAL': Eliot's early poems from 'Inventions of the March Hare'.  (from WOOL-GATHERER 23)

Zeluco pursues selfish pleasure with unremitting perseverance, but is incapable of anything but the most transitory enjoyment from its possession. His moral conscience, although it exists, is such a shapeless runt of a thing at the conscious level that it barely deserves the name, but the intrinsic nature of his quest and its objects debars lasting satisfaction, so that he is represented as permanently fretful, without ever achieving the clarity to trace this irritation to his own shortcomings: 'few people blame themselves, whilst it is in the power of self-love to twist the charge against others'. So the central figure in the novel passes this way and that along the rather limited spectrum between grumpy and incandescently furious, except when he is carrying out some wicked plot, which stimulates adrenaline but obviously exacerbates inner tension.

'JOHN':  John Moore's novel, 'Zeluco'.  (from WOOL-GATHERER 24)

Reality never impinges. A Mediterranean idyll is the standard setting, sometimes with a more pseudo-Oriental colour as Moore switches from rehashing Greek myth to dramatising Old Testament episodes. Locations are pestered with nymphs; winsome maidens and golden-tanned cherubic children skinny-dip in classical rivers. Sensuality is carefully, exquisitely injected into line after line, yet the effect is not only syrupy but anaemic - certainly not sexy.

'THOMAS STURGE': The early poetry of Thomas Sturge Moore.  (from WOOL-GATHERER 24)
 No doubt he was dependent on the kindness of others. But why would you not want Michael Drayton as a house-guest? He was described as 'slow of speech, and inoffensive in company', but he was a civilised man with wide interests, and his table-talk, even though diffidently offered, would be worth listening to; he was a man with a sense of propriety and a strict moral code, but appreciative and tolerant, too; he made some of the satirical observations about female nature which are reflex in the period, but he had many women friends, and valued them for their intellect; he could perhaps give lessons to your children; he could give you a preview of work in progress. He would surely not have drunken, noisy, midnight parties like Sir Toby Belch; he would not interfere with the maidservants.
Is there any truth, though, in the oft-recycled anecdote that 'Shakespeare, Drayton and Ben Jonson had a merry meeting and, it seems, drank too hard, for Shakespeare died of a fever there contracted'? The meeting is not implausible - Drayton had many literary friends, and Shakespeare came from the same area. The diagnosis of the cause of death is unreliable. We don't know what Shakespeare's son-in-law, Dr John Hall, made of it - but he did make a case-note about his supposedly successful treatment of Drayton for a fever at one time.
I would not consider fatal pleurisy a fair exchange for it, but I would give a lot to have spent an evening in conversation with Michael Drayton over a pint or two of sack.

'Property' is a word with negative tendencies in the plays. Antony dismisses Lepidus as a mere cat's-paw: "Do not talk of him / But as a property" (JC, 4/1/39-40). Lewis the Dauphin refuses to bow to pressure from the Papal Legate: "I am too high-born to be propertied, / To be a secondary at control ..." (KJ, 5/2/79ff). Malvolio wails that he is made into an object of derision, a butt for amusement: "They have here propertied me ... and do all they can to face me out of my wits" (TN, 4/2/94ff). Fenton is indignant that her father is refusing to countenance his wooing of Anne Page because " 'tis a thing impossible / I should love thee but as a property" (MW, 3/4/9-10), where the word has a sense both of a financial asset and a tool to be exploited.

One can see how the theatrical meaning could develop, a prop being an actor's useful instrument. But on one occasion, we see it used exactly for the purpose which concerns this book. Peter Quince is either put-upon - the Muggins who always gets saddled with duties because he is too soft to say no - or he is the bossy type who thinks he can do the responsible jobs so much better than anyone else. Either way, the production of 'Pyramus and Thisbe' lies heavily on his shoulders. As well as deciding on the play, casting it, organising rehearsals, and trying to keep order, there is the paper-work: a 'scrip' or 'scroll', 'of every man's name which is thought fit through all Athens to play in our interlude' (MND, 1/2/3ff), which is evidently going to need rewriting, since the original document features characters such as Thisbe's mother and Pyramus's father, who are tacitly erased from the final version. He has had to write out all the parts, which he distributes (92), these being, as usual in Elizabethan practice, only the words to be spoken by the individual character, with brief cues. He writes the summary of the play for the bill of fare offered to Theseus ('A tedious brief scene of young Pyramus / And his love Thisbe, very tragical mirth', 5/1/56-7). He presumably wrote, as well as delivering, the Prologue (taking some time to warm up, and apparently suffering some stage fright which makes him bite his lines initially into random chunks). He may well have written the whole play himself - if he did not, a tactful veil has been thrown over who did.

 But at the end of 1/2, he marches off to perform yet another task: "In the meantime I will draw a bill of properties, such as our play wants." And that is what I shall endeavour to do now.


Henley made himself into a dominant force in English letters, doing so from a lowly background and an interrupted education, and was well-read in a variety of disciplines - a formidable allrounder. But he also had a peg-leg. With his curiosity, his imagination, his otherwise powerful physical frame, and his pertinacious ambition, a completely different way of life as a Man of Action might have been equally or more attractive if the option had not already been closed off to him in his adolescence.

He would surely have ventured further afield than France, daydreaming already as a boy under the stimulus of the Bristol Docks. The Empire had the glamour of the impossible. His editorial achievements suggest that he had the ability to be a good colonial administrator; his quest for romance could have made him an explorer or led him into an army career. He put his heart into the life which he chose, but would it have been his first choice? 



...Hour passed on hour, 

   And gradual each apprehensive lip
  Grew silent with concern; then, as they sat,

  Like fern-leaves troubled by a sudden wind,
  Their hearts were shaken by a speechless fear;
  Each read the terror in the other's face.
  They searched with lights - they madly called her name -
  Night heard, and, conscience-stricken, held its breath,
  And listened wild. At last, in the bleared morn,
  They saw a something white within the stream -

  He raised his drowned bride in distracted arms.

This is a very Victorian tragedy, and its most intriguing aspect is its provenance ... Smith had been 'paying attention' to a girl who failed to appear one day at a rendez-vous and was discovered dead in the Glasgow and Paisley Canal, having fallen off the bank in the fog the previous day. Smith was deeply upset, although their relationship had not, at least on his part, been particularly intense. There may have been an element of guilt as well as sorrow in his enshrining of her in the narrative, as well as in a supposed poem of Horton's, recited by one of the contributors to the discussion, which uses Barbara (the girl's real name) as a pathetic refrain.



Even with the little that survives, though, she may be said to have achieved what her cheer-leaders wanted her to do: to vindicate the quality of the female brain. Put as baldly as that, it sounds grotesque: how can such an action be necessary, and how can stringing rhymes together accomplish the task anyway? But any tool that can be used to dismantle these wicked barriers ‘earns a place i’the story’. The ‘Female Advocate’ who began so feistily, tilting at chauvinism, matured to write of other matters, too, but the manifesto was never jettisoned:


  Say, tyrant Custom, why must we obey
  The impositions of thy haughty sway?
  From the first dawn of life unto the grave,
  Poor Womankind’s in every state a slave -
  The nurse, the mistress, parent and the swain -
  For love she must, there’s none escape that pain.
  Then comes the last, the fatal slavery:
  The husband, with insulting tyranny,
  Can have ill manners justified by law ...


Prior’s wry amusement at the figures we cut can be illustrated by the treatment of his own weakness for collecting. His elegant London house was stuffed with objets d’art, yet, as we have seen, he knew that the problem with false or exaggerated values is that acquisition is everything and completion is fatal:

What toil did honest Curio take
What strict enquiries did he make,
To get one medal, wanting yet,
And perfect all his Roman set?
’Tis found: and O, his happy lot!
’Tis bought, locked up, and lies forgot:
Of these no more you hear him speak;
He now begins upon the Greek.
These, ranged and showed, shall in their turns
Remain obscure as in their urns.



As a woman, Leapor observed the ageing, increasingly raddled belle with more sympathy than one finds in Swift, who examined her like something distasteful pickled in a jar. The fading beauty is a regular butt of satirical verse, and much of Leapor’s phrasing, as always, is conventional, but her approach is forceful, comic, yet poignant. Dorinda, the hag-in-waiting, is shown in a convincing enough depression, haranguing the reflection in her mirror and seeing the foolishness of pretending that time can be reversed by primping more and more persistently. Let yourself go with dignity and commonsense:

Thy Spring is past, thy Summer Sun declin'd, 
See Autumn next, and Winter stalks behind:
But let not Reason with thy Beauties fly,
Nor place thy Merit in a brilliant Eye; 
'Tis thine to charm us by sublimer ways,
And make thy Temper, like thy features, please:


A poem begins with a female admirer spying on The Poet as he rambles round a garden and finally plumps down on a bench by the espalier where peaches are growing. What were his contemplations as he sat there, she is agog to know. They must have been frightfully sublime. Dobson feels he ought to be obliging:

    Madam – whose uncensorious eye
      Grows gracious over certain pages,
    Wherein the Jester’s maxims lie,
      It may be, thicker than the Sage’s –
    I hear but to obey, and could
     Mere wish of mine the pleasure do you,
    Some verse as whimsical as Hood –
      As gay as Praed – should answer to you.

However, his train of thought had not been exalted at all ...


Another outlaw is the gipsy. Hodgson claimed that he had taken to the road for a while with travelling fairs while a teenager; even without such personal acquaintance, he would be naturally drawn to the romance which was associated with them - in literature, at least. Time has been called an 'old gipsy man' endlessly on the move in his caravan; here is a creature very much of flesh and blood who, like the beggar, could well be a vignette from real life but is also a figure from a living tableau that could be centuries old:

   "Come, try your skill, kind gentlemen,
   A penny for three tries!"
   Some threw and lost, some threw and won
   A ten-a-penny prize.

   She was a tawny gipsy girl,
   A girl of twenty years,
   I liked her for the lumps of gold
   That jingled from her ears;

   I liked the flaring yellow scarf
   Bound loose about her throat,
   I liked her showy purple gown
   And flashy velvet coat.

   A man came up, too loose of tongue,
   And said no good to her;
   She did not blush as Saxons do,
   Or turn upon the cur;

   She fawned and whined "Sweet gentleman,
   A penny for three tries!"
   - But oh, the den of wild things in
   The darkness of her eyes!

What is the point of this commonplace paranoia? Even the most sexist Elizabethan was aware that men are unfaithful, too, and that double moral standards have been applied to the sexual behaviour of men and women; the significance is in the attitudes taken. Feminist polemic would crush the life out of this investigation, which focuses largely on the exploitation of a joke which was the special favourite of a culture that is several hundred years past.

No great perspicacity is required, though, to see that a patriarchal society inclined to view women as chattels is going to be made uneasy by the obvious fact that no template of a husband-wife relationship is going to fit any encounter between a couple of real humans, and that wives will manoeuvre themselves into whatever position can be achieved within their constraints - which may, in extreme cases, include extra-marital sex.


It is a cliche of erotic verse that frustration sharpens desire, as satisfaction blunts it, hence the advice, to men as well as women, to play hard to get. A curious version of this is seen in Measure for Measure: Angelo had treated his fiancee abominably, repudiating her because a shipwreck has sent to the bottom of the sea both her brother and the marriage dowry he was bringing to her. Mariana, in her 'moated grange', has mourned in solitude ever since, but she: 'hath yet in her the continuance of her first affection. His unjust unkindness, that in all reason should have quenched her love, hath, like an impediment in the current, made it more violent and unruly' (MM, 3/1/239-43 - notice how the fire/water analogies for passion have once more intertwined, with 'quench' leading Shakespeare's associative mind in a different but habitual direction.

This emotionalism (Mariana herself refers to her 'brawling discontent') is her introduction to us, because Shakespeare is preparing us to accept that she will, at the end of Act V, plead for the life of this singularly unappealing man, and desire to live with him as his wife. To make her passion plausible, the risk is accepted that we may see it as rather perverse.

SHAKESPEARE AND STRONG WATERS: Imagery of flow and flood

   ... we have a young fox-hunting parson of good fortune, who is just married, and hired a house in our neighbourhood; he and a brother in law of the same stamp are to live together, and I suppose will stock the country with this sort of game [hares, partridges etc]; they will be no good neighbours to us, because I can't drink much strong beer, never go a hunting, and don't much admire leather breaches [sic] ... he is a young man just turned twenty four, and his Lady a virgin some few degrees on the other side of forty, who upon several accounts may not have good reason to expect much of her husband's company, and therefore in all probability will amuse herself in her solitary chamber, by tracing out with her needle the different fortunes of the chase, (which he is so strongly pursuing in the field) to adorn the parlour by way of fire screen.


A day of excitement in the parish in consequence of Miss Dingle's wedding and of her wearing a veil, supposed to be the first ever seen in Dereham. The church was crowded. All weddings are alike. The mind reverts to new well-fitting white gloves and bouquets imported from Covent Garden - postboys with huge favours and smirking servant girls - a handsome breakfast with lots of champagne - wretched speeches on the part of the men and tears on the part of the women. Then come the corded boxes; the bridegroom has another glass; an old shoe is thrown into the carriage for luck and off they go. For my part I dislike weddings and would sooner attend a funeral..

THE DIARIES OF BENJAMIN ARMSTRONG, a 19th century Norfolk parson

... it is striking how regularly Claudio 'thous' Benedick and is 'youd' in return; this is not normal, because, however old Benedick may be, Claudio is certainly the junior and therefore more likely to be metaphorically patted on the head with informal address. Shakespeare is offering a helpful clue to their natures and their relationship which might otherwise be overlooked. Claudio is puppyish, looking up to Benedick as an older dog or big brother, but trying to assert himself with teasing and the assumption of matey equality. Benedick is keeping his distance - "you're an amiable fellow, but you ARE a bit of a puppy, and no one becomes my bosom pal quite so easily."

'ONLY FOUL WORDS - AND THEREUPON I WILL KISS THEE': formal and informal language in Much Ado About Nothing and The Merchant of Venice 

These young men have income from somewhere, dress snappily and party a lot, but that income is unlikely to be bottomless. They are Shylock's natural prey, and the classic escape route from brokers and debtors' prison at worst, or parading in your best suit with your stomach rumbling because you can't afford a meal, is - marriage. In the play, three of them strike lucky. These are not Venetians, but typical Elizabethan Englishmen of a certain class, which is an argument against scrabbling round for 'parallels' such as (to take the most tempting one) Mussolini-era Fascism.

'MORALIA BY MOONLIGHT': essays on aspects of The Merchant of Venice

It was the man, rather than the poetry, that did something to change my life. Roger Frith was singularly beautiful, with feminine outlines half-concealed by a powerful frame. He seems inseparable in my imagination from a wide-brimmed, natty if battered, felt hat, which I took to be an essential adjunct for a serious poet. He had a rich but light baritone, with a touch of huskiness and a melancholy, even plangent, tinge that never disappeared even when he was animated and amused. But none of this was the essential point. What mattered is that he was a Poet:


Each causes ruth:
I was a poet, so I told the truth,
And overheard them talk of me and say:
“With what he does, he’ll never pay his way.”

Next time I lied: I was a ‘schoolmaster’:
“You have more money now, no poetaster;
keep from that arty lot, you always will –
and don’t come here unless you’re working still!”

A peacock butterfly upon my wall,
 she suns herself, and so I must recall
what on her wings I read, and always will:

“Don’t watch me, unless you are a poet still...”


Kent intervenes with ‘Royal Lear’. Although the adjective takes out some of the sting, it is still a serious breach of etiquette to address the king by name, but he then becomes completely reckless: ‘be Kent unmannerly, / When Lear is mad.’ Can it get worse? ‘What would’st thou do, old man?’ – yes, it can. The ‘thou’ of affection is masked by the overt insolence, but that does nothing to make his language forgivable. Having ‘thoud’ his king once, he proceeds to do it seventeen more times before leaving the stage under banishment.

Lear can hardly speak as this scolding proceeds, and no wonder – everyone will be frozen with horror, and he can barely believe his ears either. His exclamation, ‘O, vassal!’ (161) shows his awareness of the enormity of Kent’s defiance, and, although Kent slips a last couple of ‘thous’ in at 180-1, it is likely that his attempt to deal with Lear as a human being rather than an icon has ended in the humiliation of kneeling: ‘Hear me, recreant! / On thine allegiance, hear me!’ (166-7) This is the unanswerable phrase, the drawing of a line which a feudal vassal can only cross to become a rebel and a traitor; it requires instant obedience and probably an act of homage.

‘YOU WHAT?’: Shakespeare’s pronouns – an investigation of formal and informal language in King Lear.

this morning I dreamed I was in our church, broake bread, went not home to dinner, (my wife I thought minded me not), standing up in my deske for afternoone service, I was without a band, and ashamed. I put on a surplice, still ashamed. I stoopt down and put a handkercheife about my necke (to conceale my wives neglect) I begun to sing, but could not read the psalms, nor sing, nor none sing with mee, the booke was a strangers, I laboured for my own bible but could not come by it


The more I look at As You Like It, the more I admire Touchstone’s intelligence, and the sillier I think Jaques looks and is meant to look. There’s the Seven Ages of Man speech, of course, which is his intellectual and poetic calling-card or passport, but really it’s a fool’s set-piece. It comes from the same rhetorical stable as Touchstone’s description of the stages of conducting a quarrel (from the Retort Courteous to the Lie Direct – see V/4), which also, not coincidentally, has seven divisions. I really want to be a fool, says Jaques – but he already is. Only, Touchstone is funnier.

‘AMATEUR HOUR AT THE COMEDY CLUB’: some observations on aspiring and apprentice jesters in Shakespeare

And he chose to start a play full of glamour and bellicosity with this murky manoeuvring about money. Not because he had to ... how can we ignore that first scene, which tells us that the clergy have been scratching their tonsures to find some means of diverting the king from an opportunistic land-grab, and have come up with the scheme of voluntarily donating towards the campaign funds of a French expedition which, for a young, ambitious Henry, is likely to be more fun even than milking the Church?

‘PRELATES PRINCIPLED, PREDATORY AND PREPOSTEROUS’: Shakespeare’s portrayal of the clergy

Pathos and absurdity would seem to hover round a man who wrote so copiously and found so small an audience. However, I don’t think it is at all appropriate to patronise a man who had 77 years of vigorous intellectual life, enjoyed great love and friendship (as well as getting up a lot of people’s noses, which he also enjoyed), and was quite devoid of self-pity, protected by a taste for mordant irony and a great capacity for sheer fun:

    WE, though a little word of two short letters,
    A most important word is, and ambiguous ...
    Sometimes it means the author and his reader,
    Pair never without honour to be mentioned,
    By me, at least, who in myself comprise,
    Not seldom, both the units of this dual,
    Writing what no one reads except myself.


It is significant that, although established as the Bard of the Farmyard, he published a long, four-book description of a ten-day walking tour, ‘The Banks of the Wye’. As this adventure unfolds, one can feel him saying to himself: “So this is Sublimity – this is what has fed the imagination of the Big Boys.” And his own style takes off – Wordsworth couldn’t have exposed the play of emotions better in his heart than this:


            ... Hang the dunce
            Who would not doff his cap at once
            In ecstasy when, bold and new,
            Bursts on his sight a mountain view.

            Though vast the prospect here became,
            Intensely as the love of fame
            Glowed the strong hope, that strange desire,
            That deathless wish of climbing higher...
            The heart distends, the whole frame feels,
            Where, inaccessible to wheels,
            The utmost storm-worn summit spreads
            Its rocks grotesque, its downy beds;
            Here no false feeling sense belies –
            Man lifts the weary foot and sighs;
            Laughter is dumb ...


Pockets were picked and purses were cut wherever there was a concourse of people, preferably with their attention distracted, as is still the case with bag-snaffling. Outdoor entertainers were notorious for providing, deliberately or unintentionally, the ideal environment for the ‘nip’ and the ‘foist’ (cutpurse and pickpocket). West Country Roger, still sticky from the custard pie thrown at him, moves on to:

                   Where Lads and Lasses
                       With Pudding-bag Arses,
                            zo nimble were:
            Heels over Head, as round as a Wheel they turn’d about –
         Old Nick zure was in their Breeches without doubt.   

Is that when he was relieved of his coin, watching the acrobats? Or did he gape disbelievingly at the jugglers and magicians who, as ‘Jack Pudding’s Fegary’ suggests, showed him ‘Tricks / of their Legerdemain’ which should not have been in their act?


'The White Devil' is spectacular even by Jacobean standards. There are seven on-stage deaths; five are hauled off to torture and probable execution; one character goes mad, and one feigns madness; there are two ghosts, a conjuror, a Cardinal who becomes a Pope (just the kind of hate-figure to make the Red Bull Theatre resound with boos); and three people going round in disguise. Thrills enough for any sensation-seeking audience. Yet Webster's preface to the play when it was printed in 1612 confesses that it had flopped in performance. This was because it failed to find 'a full and understanding auditory', and he warms up to sneer about 'ignorant asses' and pearls before swine.

'THE WHITE DEVIL': The 'moral' world of Webster's play.

A favourite pastime in the plays is to trace a sequence of events, with a sense, in hindsight, that the domino effect of reactions was so inevitable that Ananke (Necessity) must have ordained it all. This can lead to a certain amount of absurdity:

Chorus:   My slavery was ordained, / The ruin of my life made inevitable, / On the day when Paris Prince of Troy / Had timber felled in the pine-woods of Mount Ida / To build a ship for his voyage to Greece / To win the bed of Helen ...  [Hecabe]

'To chren' - it had to be - from the moment that Paris's woodchopper spat on his hands to our being hauled off to Greece as slaves. It reminds me of the Nurse, wringing her hands over the collapse of Medea's marriage to Jason, saying: if only the pine-trees on Mount Pelion hadn't been chopped down to make the oars that propelled the Argo that brought Jason within Medea's orbit. You can always think that everything had to be. Which is quite different from saying, as Oedipus does, that predestination is the will of Zeus - God as a proactive computer programmer.

THE SHADOWY IMPERATIVE: the powers behind the Olympians.