Not everyone can make it to Turriff for the Little Red Town Talks, so in case you missed out, here is the text from the 2nd TURRIFF TALK Schooldays, Shakespeare and Socialism – delivered by Cally Wight of The Deveron Press on 13th July 2016.
This year is the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. It has got me (among others I’m sure) wondering what he has to say to the modern world? I knew (and loved) Shakespeare well from my earliest teens till my late twenties. I then learned some things about commodification and fell out of love with him. Not necessarily his fault. It’s what people have ‘done’ to him.
So when I came across Leatham’s 17 studies of Shakespeare I was intrigued but not immediately enthused. Shakespeare has been in the past too long for me to claim any close relationship to him. But I read Leatham’s wee pamphlets and found an interpretation completely at odds with anything I was taught (or thought) in the years when I ‘knew’ Shakespeare. I can only suggest that Leatham is offering a socialist interpretation of Shakespeare, which is something I’d neither thought about nor come across before. But I find it is interesting to look back and see what Leatham was ‘doing’ with Shakespeare. I think it’s quite singular.
In broad terms, in the early years of Socialism, Leatham uses the work of Shakespeare in an educational context… and it all started here in Turriff.
Leatham first produced his 17 Shakespeare studies in Westwood School magazine around 1905 and they were subsequently published as 2d pamphlets. They also feature in the Gateway from 1913 till 1925. I’m currently putting them all together in one volume for publication. I’m working largely off the 2nd editions which came out around 1925. I cannot say how much revision there is between what was written in 1905 and 20 years later. It’s something I still have to explore.
Leatham’s connection with Westwood School started in 1905 but it’s not clear when he actually wrote the Shakespeare’s first. (Or rather, how late he was still writing them) He began to publish them in The Gateway in 1913 but I don’t know if the series was ‘complete’ before then. Certainly he revised them a number of times – and I am not sure how different the editions are from one another. So to a great extent this is the blind leading the blind. But it’s the best I can do for now:
Let’s first look at Leatham’s study on Macbeth. It is titled ‘An Up to Date View of Macbeth’ and dates from 1914. (though I am using the 2nd edition from the 1920s)
In this study, Leatham suggests that Shakespeare didn’t deal with contemporary issues, instead he writes:
‘Pleasing the Court.
In ‘Macbeth’ Shakespeare went back to a dim and scarcely historic period for his events and personages.
To us ‘Macbeth’ is not so much a creation of the imagination which might have taken any shape and course at the will of the poet, but a narrative of inevitable happenings which could have no other upshot than they have in this drama.
Viewing the play as the Tragedy of Ambition, authors have canvassed the characters and motives of Macbeth and his wife, not merely on the presented elements, but as if there were more in them than meets the eye. Was Lady Macbeth the stronger and more cruel of the two? Did she inspire Macbeth from motives of personal ambition, or was she merely his accomplice out of the love and loyalty of a wife who, in her husband’s advancement, finds her complete satisfaction, without thought of direct honour or profit to herself?
When Murder was in Fashion.
On the presented elements, the tragedy is plain enough in its meaning. Macbeth was an ambitious general and the readiness with which he took the hint of the witch as to his being king of Scotland shows that before he came under his wife’s influence he more or less embraced the idea. His successful generalship, his kinship to Duncan, the readiness with which the Crown fell to him as of right when Duncan was slain and his sons fled, showed that his title was a natural one, and suggests that his thoughts must frequently have turned to the possibility of his succeeding to the Crown. Macbeth lived in a barbarous age, in which, especially in Scotland, murder was almost a recreation, not only then but for centuries afterwards.’
In his study Leatham goes on to looks at the ambition of women. He draws parallels between contemporary and past – notes that Elizabeth I had just died – and it makes me wonder was she a lady Macbeth in Shakespeare’s mind? Or was Mary Queen of Scots? Who knows?
I guess my point is, we read something and we think we know a lot about it because we assume the version we’re reading is ‘the’ version. This is no more the case with Leatham than it was with Shakespeare. Time, revisions, editors all mediate and change (often mangle) the original – sometimes beyond all recognition. We have to bear that in mind when we read, as much as we have to bear in mind that you cannot truly retrofit. Shakespeare’s view of ‘nothing’ was different from ours so that when in King Lear we have the quote ‘nothing comes from nothing’ we have to remember that he had not the advantage of Berkley’s Argument for Immaterialism, which came in the 17th century and suggests that nothing exists outside our imaginations and that things only exist when/because they are perceived – which heads us towards a more current quantum view of life.
Instead Shakespeare is looking backwards and referring to a variation of an ancient Greek philosophical and scientific expression, in itself the opposite of the biblical notion that God created the world (which is a whole lot of something) out of nothing (Genesis 1:1) So King Lear is showing himself to be pre-Christian rather than dealing with materialism – or commenting on quantum physics or the Big Bang theory. Shakespeare neither discovered nor predicted the Higgs Boson Particle.
Back to Macbeth – Leatham looks at the ambition of women in some detail in his exploration of the play. Leatham was quite outspoken against Women’s Suffrage in a couple of things I’ve read – I’m not sure if he was being genuine or provocative – you can’t always tell with Leatham – but at times his stated views in ‘Education and the Enjoyment of Life’ are enough to make a feminist’s hair curl!
He also makes the point that we know Shakespeare and his plays so well that they are almost part of our consciousness. If we set Macbeth against the quintessentially English play Henry V (I’m using the Gateway 1914 edition) we find that the latter is an anti war play published just before the start of the First World War. We have to assume that the war he is railing against is the Boer War (1899-1902) and/or the First Balkan War 1902. It reminds us that war is always with us.
One of the Shakespeare plays I (think) I’ve known best is Hamlet. Leatham’s take on it is interesting and unusual (to me at least). I’m using the Gateway 1915 edition titled: The Truth About Hamlet and it covers both the history from which the play was taken – he sums it up:
‘Such, in outline, is the Hamlet story in its squalid barbarity.’
Then continues to explore ‘the motive’ of the play. It’s interesting (to me at least) that for us Shakespeare, and especially Hamlet is a deeply ‘psychological’ play – Hamlet’s ‘dilemma’ is certainly one that rang existential bells with me as a teenager. But Leatham isn’t fundamentally interested in it from this aspect. He is more concerned with the way revenge is portrayed. And the ‘contemporary’ issues of the First World War are to the fore in his ‘interpretation.’ He writes:
That the play of ‘Hamlet’ has revenge for its motive does not seem to strike the average reader as a vicious feature. This is not remarkable when it is remembered that, in spite of so many centuries of Christian teaching, revenge is still an avowed motive in professedly Christian countries, and liberal elements of the venegeful spirit still linger in our punitive systems. Popular rage against certain classes of offenders exhausts itself in suggestions of ingenious torture, the idea being that matters are mended, that the equities are adjusted, if the culprit may himself be made to suffer pains akin to those he has inflicted on others. A passenger ship is treated as a warship and sunk at sea on the poor plea that it is carrying 4,500 cases of ammunition. Thereupon the baser section of the press, with the natural blackguardism of unregenerate man, advises reprisals on perfectly innocent people of the same nationality as the pirate-murderers, on the principle, apparently, that two sets of wrongs make one right. The death penalty would really appear to survive mainly because, as Carlyle urged, society still believes that it has to revancher itself upon the murderer by murdering him. In the early stages of the South African War, the avowed motive was the avenging of the Majuba, just as in the early days of the European War General Joffre, speaking in Alsace, publicly declared that this was a war of revenge. The newspapers, even churchy sheets, daily print statements as to something or other being avenged. In the sphere of politics, again, Irish and other Home Rulers, instead of being exhorted to do their duty on the clear political merits, were basely asked to ‘Remember Mitchelstown!’ and avenge it by giving their votes against the party in power at the time the Mitchelstown shootings took place. Political retribution is natural and needs no excuse: but the use of such catchwords as ‘Remember Mitcheltown!’ shows the extent to which the idea of revenge is inwoven with our thoughts.
…the critics still discuss the play of ‘Hamlet’ and the character of the Prince from the barbaric point of view, which assumes that revenge is quite in order as the motive of a drama.
Two Rival Theories.
There are two rival theories to the character of the Prince. The accepted view is that Hamlet is a waverer, that the native hue of his resolution is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought. One set of critics appear to be dissatisfied that Hamlet did not go straight from his interview with the Ghost and impale his stepfather as he reeled off to bed after his carouse.
Another smaller and less hasty class argue that Hamlet was too just a man to take such summary measure upon the mere word of a spirit, who might, after all, ‘be a devil.’ Hamlet, they argue, wished to go by the evidence, and would have the proof as complete and convincing as it could be made.’
In my day, interpretations of Hamlet were that it was all a question of moral choice: ‘what is the right thing to do?’ ‘How does Hamlet know whether action is good or not’ - maybe you were taught other interpretations. It leads me to think that the suggestion that Shakespeare is all things to all men is not the sole reason his work has endured for 400 years. Indeed it may only have endured for 400 years because we reinterpret it to our own circumstances. Shakespeare may (or may not) be an expert at universalising the individual – but we should be aware of the changes that have been made by our own retro-fitting of his ‘themes’ and dramatic dilemmas. It may be what we make of him rather than any innate feature which is why we revere him. Which is an interesting thought especially with regard to the next play I’m going to look at.
Published in Gateway during the War we have Coriolanus The Soldier Type in Action. It was published in Gateway in - 1917 –while in the thick of war. (I’m using the 2nd edition, 1925) Reflecting on the nature of being a soldier.
I saw Coriolanus at the National Theatre in the 1984 and it had a huge impact on me. I was 21 years old. What it taught me was that people set someone up to be a leader, because they don’t want to take responsibility for themselves. And then, when they have that leader, they destroy him. For me, rather than having a ‘heroic flaw’ (which was what I was taught about Shakespeare’s heroes at school and university) Coriolanus was a man whose goodness was turned into a flaw by others.
Leatham’s interpretation is completely counter to my own. He sees Corolianus as true to soldier type – a true militarist – a firm believer in ‘might is right’ and all the worse for that. He says:
‘The Real Enemies.
Robert Louis Stevenson, settled in Samoa, on a great occasion found that to the bickering Samoan chiefs he could give no better advice than to stop their tribal fighting and make one good road across the island. In the same way it seems that a duty much more exigent on the German people than making war on their neighbours was to make war on the filth of their own sewers.
To those nearer home who still cherish romantic views of war, very similar advice may be tendered. One of the disgraces of Britain, and especially of Scotland, is the degraded housing of its people. To extirpate ignorance, disease, and mere filth; to give the ‘rank-scented many’ the time and taste and convenience to bathe their bodies and to clean their teeth, is better as an elementary duty, a mere starting-point, than to bear oneself with game- cock courage in a quarrel which may be of our own making. In the most martial of his plays - Henry V – Shakespeare makes his warrior-king utter a sentiment by which the character of Coriolanus may be sufficiently tried and tested.
In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility.
Coriolanus, so far from being modest, or still, or humble in time of peace, appears to us in all situations as the man of flouts and jeers. After the manner of the true soldier type, he had no vocation for peace.’
Of course, Leatham’s Coriolanus is mediated through the eyes of current war. The ‘war’ immediately preceding ‘my’ Coriolanus was the Falklands War. Our current interpretation would doubtless take the Gulf/Iraq Wars as its centrepoint.
It is interesting to wonder why and how we glean what we do from Shakespeare. I don’t know if my interpretation of Coriolanus was derived from a particularly potent dramatic performance or from the text. In any case that text was being ‘mediated’ both by the actors/director and me the audience. And all of us carry our own cultural ‘agendas’ be they deliberate, hidden or unconscious. What does all of this prove? Nothing except perhaps that as Simon and Garfunkel so appositely put it ‘a man sees what he wants to see and disregards the rest.’ I had a certainly at 21 which I don’t have at 53. Which seems to be the wrong way round. My present observations are that it is hard to look beyond our own personal prejudices and ‘learn’ something from others – even from Shakespeare – perhaps especially from Shakespeare. I’m sure in 20 years I’ll say something different. And that is one problem of publishing. To some extent you are committed by what you say – we can’t always make revisions – and even if we do, we can’t guarantee that people in the future will read the ‘right’ version of what we write.
I guess the final point to leave is, ironically a quote from Macbeth:
‘Nothing is but what is not.’
Full list of Leatham's Tuppeny Shakespeare Series:
LEATHAM’S SHAKESPEARE STUDIES:
(with dates of first publication in Gateway)
1. Hamlet (June 1915)
2. Merchant of Venice (March 1913)
3. Macbeth (Feb 1914)
4. King Lear (March 1914)
5. Julius Caesar (May 1914)
6. Henry V (July 1914)
7. The Melancholy Jacques (Sept 1914)
8. Twelfth Night and A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Oct 1914)
9. The Tempest Dec (1914)
10. Coriolanus Feb (1917)
11. Richard II Nov (1919)
12. King John March (1920)
13. Henry VIII Dec (1920)
14. Taming of the Shrew Sept (1923)
15. Othello (Jan 1924)
16. Romeo and Juliet (April 1925)
17. Richard III (Sept 1925)
To find past articles please use monthly archives.