18 April 2016

Poem of the Week 2016/16

a bereft queen mourns her lost child

You are as fond of grief as of your child.

Grief fills the room up of my absent child,
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,
Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words,
Remembers me of all his gracious parts,
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form;
Then have I reason to be fond of grief!
Fare you well: had you such a loss as I,
I could give better comfort than you do.
I will not keep this form upon my head [she unlooses her hair]
When there is such disorder in my wit!
O Lord! my boy, my Arthur, my fair son!
My life, my joy, my food, my all the world!
My widow-comfort, and my sorrows' cure! [Exit]

William Shakespeare, King John, Act III, scene 3, ll 92 - 105

Last week we had a father reunited with his daughter; this week we have a mother grieving for her lost son.

Read on its own, the speech stands as a powerful lyric poem, an examination of deep and all-devouring grief. It begins as a response to a censure from Constance's sometime ally and sympathizer, the king of France. Her first line suggests not only that grief is taking the place (fills the room up) of her absent child, but also that grief is filling up and taking over the room in which he lived: the space in which he lived his daily life is now filled to the brim with grief at his absence. For several lines she develops the thought of grief taking the place of her child – lying in his empty bed, but also walking up and down with her, looking and speaking to her as he did, "stuffing out" his vacant garments, as if grief is now displacing the missing boy. These lines are the more moving for a certain restraint in them. But then, overcome, Constance starts to leave, first rebuking the king for failing to comfort her appropriately. And then she breaks down, feels herself starting to lose her hold on things (there is such disorder in my wit), tearing her hair loose, exclaiming not to the king but to her absent boy, in abrupt yet wide-ranging terms: he is everything to her, and her life is doubtful without his, her daily food and her sustaining world.

But this is an excerpt from a play, and the speech does not stand on its own. And that's the endless fascination of Shakespeare: this is part of an on-going and ambiguous action, and in its context we can't see this simply as the deeply moving expression of a mother's justifiable grief. For one thing, Constance's son Arthur is a rival claimant for the English throne, and everyone in the drama, including his uncle King John and John's mother Elinor (better known to us as Eleanor of Aquitaine), admits (openly or not), that his claim is indeed better than John's. So Arthur is not only her child, he is a powerful piece to hold in the struggle for dominion. Elinor has already accused Constance of loving Arthur only as a means to power, and though Constance throws the charge right back at her, we have no real reason to distrust Elinor's insights, for though she, like everyone else in the play to varying degrees, is also motivated by the desire for power, she comes across as tough-minded and shrewd, seeming clear-headed and intelligent in a way that makes her more appealing than the weak and vacillating John or the changeable and self-interested King and court of France. When she makes a charge against a character, it tends to stick.

Furthermore, there is some justice in the French king's criticism of Constance's emotional self-indulgence (that is, it is in line with what we've experienced of her so far). Earlier in the scene (which takes place after a battle in which King John's forces overcome those of Arthur's allies, including the King of France), Constance delivers this speech:

No, I defy all counsel, all redress,
But that which ends all counsel, true redress:
Death, death, O amiable, lovely death!
Thou odoriferous stench! sound rottenness!
Arise forth from the couch of lasting night,
Thou hate and terror to prosperity,
And I will kiss thy detestable bones,
And put my eyeballs in thy vaulty brows,
And ring these fingers with thy household worms,
And stop this gap of breath with fulsome dust,
And be a carrion monster like thyself:
Come, grin on me, and I will think thou smil'st
And buss thee as thy wife! Misery's love,
O come to me!

King John, Act III, scene 3, ll 23 - 34

The Elizabethan age liked to mourn in more elaborate rhetoric than we do, and for them the paradoxes (lovely death, odoriferous stench, sound rottenness) and spun-out grotesqueries (as when Constance outfits herself as the bride of death) indicated heightened and intense emotion, whereas for us, who tend to see a struggle towards articulation as a guarantee of truth, these lines are not a natural or normal expression of grief. But even by Elizabethan standards, they're not meant to be, as we can see by the reactions of those around Constance, even those friendly to her: these erotically charged lines are clearly meant to be extreme, even unbalanced, and as with Richard II's similar verbal effusions in extremity, it's impossible not to feel that in addition to genuine sorrow we're also hearing a certain narcissistic pleasure in issuing a gushing tumult of extravagantly dancing words. You'll note that Constance's speech about grief taking the place of her child is mostly about how his loss affects her, and also that although she's speaking to a group that is also suffering his loss (though, granted, not on the deep and personal level of a mother), she makes the loss of this claimant to the throne purely hers, not one of general or national significance.

You'll also note that I keep referring to Arthur's loss or absence rather than his death: at this juncture, he is, in fact, still living. He has been captured by John and his forces, and though he is clearly in great danger (in the scene preceding this one John has made it very clear to Arthur's keeper that he – John, but also by implication the keeper, if he would do the desired deed – would sleep easier if the boy were in his grave), given the rapid on-going changes we see in the political and military situation, there's no solid reason for Constance or her supporters to give up hope yet. She seems to be rushing headlong into a premature luxuriousness of sorrowing. (Premature, but not pointless: Arthur does end up dead, but not through John's orders; he dies from a fall while trying to leap to freedom from the castle in which he's captive. In one of the play's ironies, John feared the living youth, but it's his death which, instead of freeing John from his rival, displaces and discredits him: the nobility, assuming that John and Arthur's keeper are lying about the cause of Arthur's death, abandon the unloved and mercurial king, who soon dies himself, poisoned by a monk angry at his treatment of the Church.)

King John is another Shakespeare play that is comparatively obscure in our time; decades ago a theater in Rhode Island performed it and though I did not get to see the production, I remember the witty ad, which I saw in the Boston Globe: a scowling King John glares out at us over the slogan "He's never heard of you, either." The play famously does not mention Magna Carta, which is one of two things we tend to know about John's reign (the other is the Sheriff of Nottingham and Robin Hood, also not mentioned in this play). The sense of what is worth noting tends to shift back and forth over time – as does the stature and popularity of Shakespeare's plays; I think this one was more popular in the Victorian era, and the first film (as far as I know) based on Shakespeare is a few minutes shot in 1899 showing Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree as the dying King John (he gets the cover shot on this DVD collection of early Shakespearean silent films).

I used the Signet Classic edition of King John, edited by William H. Matchett, which now seems to be available only joined with Henry VIII – a reasonable combination of the two bookends in Shakespeare's cycle of history plays. I added the stage direction about unloosing the hair, which is part of a running motif in the scene of Constance tying up / letting down her hair, which, characteristically, she turns to elaborate and heart-breaking metaphors of her suffering.

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