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Poetry and Violence

by Richard H. Armstrong

There's a line in Shakespeare that I've always found riveting: "Out, vile jelly! Where is thy lustre now!" It's from King Lear, the scene where Gloucester is blinded. The words convey a disgusting brutality that is often matched by graphic staging. There's a lot of violence in Shakespeare: torture, rape, murder, sword fights, battles — real exciting stuff. And the Elizabethan theater could handle special effects. Animal intestines and bones were used to heighten the gore; a bladder full of sheep's blood could make a sword fight very realistic. I once attended a performance in London's recreated Globe Theater, where actors leapt into the "yard," where we paupers stood, to rip out Coriolanus' heart. And this made it a more authentic performance.

Shakespeare's theater was utterly unlike Sophocles' in this regard. For all the terrible things that happened in Greek tragedy, none of it happened on stage. Murders, suicides, horrible accidents — these things happened offstage, and were related by a messenger. For the Greeks, horror was something to be imagined — and imagined in gruesome detail — but not staged. It's not that they had no stomach for killing; they just restrained themselves from making the play about violent spectacle. But Shakespeare's audience teemed with a rowdy mix of fine and simple folk, they wanted a good show, and by golly, they got it.

[Lienhard] Richard, I wonder if some of Shakespeare's preoccupation came from his early background.

[Armstrong] What do you mean?

[Lienhard] Well, he was born in 1564, and medicine was just moving out of the ivory towers of the medieval world.

[Armstrong] I think I see where you're headed here.

[Lienhard] I'm sure you do. Shakespeare was 43 when his daughter, Susanna married the noted doctor John Hall. But Shakespeare had known Hall for some time by then. A modern doctor, Aubrey Kail, has looked closely at Shakespeare's plays, and found a startling imprint of both the rapidly-evolving new medicine, and of son-in-law John Hall. Shakespeare wrote Pericles, Prince of Tyre at the time of the wedding. In it, the physician Cerimon is a nobleman, doubtless based on Hall. A gentleman says to Cerimon,

Your honour has through Ephesus pour'd forth Your charity, and hundreds call themselves Your creatures, who by you have been restor'd:

Shakespeare portrayed many real-life doctors in his plays, often without disguising their names. Dr. William Butts, the real-life physician to Henry VIII, for example, shows up by name in the play, Henry VIII. The heroine Helena, of All's Well That Ends Well, was the daughter of the real-life French Physician Gerard de Narbon. When the king of France suffers an open sore, Helena uses her knowledge of her father's medicines to heal him.

Allusions to the corporeal human body flow all through Shakespeare's plays: birth, death, body maintenance. Gloucester in Henry VI describes his birth: "For I have often heard my mother say, I came into this world with feet forward." Richard III complains that he was,

Deformed, unfinish'd, sent before my time
Into this breathing world scarce half made up,

The doctors around Shakespeare thought wounds should be protected from fresh air, so we read,

The air hath got into my deadly wounds,
and much effuse of blood doth make me faint.

He clearly understood the connection of mind and body when he put these words in King Lear's mouth:

... this tempest in my mind
Doth from my senses take all feeling else.

Kail has chapters about Shakespeare on epilepsy, Shakespeare on venereal disease, on mental illness, geriatrics, wounds, therapeutics. You think of all the people who've tried to diagnose Shakespeare's greatness, maybe this odd book offers a new clue. For can it really be any surprise that the greatest teller of the human drama should tell his tales in terms of human flesh and blood?

And I guess blood and gore cannot fall too far behind, right?

[Armstrong] Right, the human body faces its forces of destruction, as well as those of healing. Still, we shouldn't let this conversation end with that side of Shakespeare.

[Lienhard] No, we really shouldn't.

[Armstrong] We have to remember that yet Shakespeare's plays contain some of the most sublime and difficult poetry in English; for complexity of conceit and thought, for power of description and detail, the bard could match any of his ancient predecessors.

How were violent spectacle and complex poetry compatible? Well, in a way, they weren't. Elizabethan drama, as T. S. Eliot said, "was aimed at a public which wanted entertainment of a crude sort, but would stand a good deal of poetry." Much of Shakespeare's audience wanted spectacle: gruesome, titillating, simple-minded, melodramatic. But he didn't make the mistake of giving them exactly what they wanted; he gave them far more than they asked.

[Lienhard] It's true. He gave them rhythm. His words adhere like glue because of their incessancy. I Think of Henry V saying to Katherine ... Kate, When France is mine and I am yours, then yours is France and you are mine. The words are simply irresistible. Dip in anywhere and the poem — the rhythm — touches us. Speaking of rhythm, here comes Roger Kaza to join us. Oh, Hi Roger. Come join us.

[Kaza] I will. You've given me just the cue to jump in here.

[Lienhard] Great, you're on.