Skinny size me: some women dramatise their inner conflict by shedding weight. Photograph: Ben Stockey
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The anorexic statement

Trust me, notice me, feed me: every female body conveys a message. So, when a woman starves herself, what is she saying?

I knew a woman whose job it was to take anorexics to the swimming pool. She was an occupational therapist: eating disorders were her field. She worked at a nearby clinic and we bumped into one another from time to time.

I found myself curious about her work, or more truthfully about her patients, those singular modern-day martyrs to the cause of their own bodies. Without quite knowing why, as I have grown older I have become more interested in – it could even be said, more respectful of – what might be called the anorexic statement. Perhaps it’s because, as the 45-year-old English mother of two children, my body has little power of provocation or utterance; or rather, that what it’s said or tried to say through the years hasn’t seemed to have added up to all that much. Quite what constitutes the anorexic statement I’m not entirely sure. All the same, it has a great power of disruption. It’s a stray spoke under the wheel of things that otherwise have the capacity to hurtle on headlong: family life, fashion, the destiny of the female body. The statement might be: help me. Or it might simply be: stop.

My therapist acquaintance herself had not been allowed to be picky in life, growing up in a family of brothers on a farm in the Australian outback. She knew how to shoot, drive a tractor, ride a horse bareback. She had left that rough home and come to the UK, where every couple of years for the sake of change she moved job and town – Slough, Birmingham, Chelmsford – though her solitude and her line of work did not alter. She neither sought nor seemed to expect much in the way of pleasure. In the evenings she made a sandwich and read a book in her rented room; her main meal was lunch in the canteen at the clinic, where food was plentiful and cheap. This somewhat joyless attitude to nourishment could come as no surprise, given that she spent her days among females who regarded the ingestion of a teaspoonful of peas as a physical and spiritual crisis. Once a week she led them to the poolside, skeletal and pale, for all the world to see. Even at the swimming pool these curious beings detected the threat of penetration, of the outside coming in. They didn’t want to get in the water, not, apparently, because they felt self-conscious or exposed, but for fear that they might swallow some of it without its calorific content having been established.

The easiest thing that could be said about my acquaintance was that she herself was impenetrable. Her choice of career must have sprung from some initial attraction to or sympathy with the anorexic state, but most often what she appeared to feel for her waifish charges was irritation, even anger. Anger is a common response, it seems, to the anorexic statement. At the very least, returning from a day spent on the receiving end of that statement, my acquaintance was hard put to feel – as they say – good about herself. If the anorexic is someone for whom the relationship between female being and female image must, on pain of death, be resolved, it may be that she denies that resolution to those who cross her path. They become the witnesses of her vulnerability; as such, she is more real than they. Like with the ascetic of old, her self-denial is a form of chastisement, yet the extremity of her appearance is confusing. Being female, it seeks attention, but of an unusual kind. It asks to be mothered – yet what if its aim is indeed to challenge the reality of the mother-figure and overpower it, to triumph over her, to consign her to flesh and steal her image? The anorexic is out to prove how little she needs, how little she can survive on; she is out, in a sense, to discredit her nurturers, while at the same time making a public crisis out of her need for nurture. Such vulnerability and such power: it brings the whole female machinery to a halt. My acquaintance had tales of rudeness and tantrums and sulks, of behaviour more commonly read about in childcare manuals (of the kind whose purpose, we are told, is to “test the boundaries”), even of a degree of personal insult which at the very least, I suppose, mothers aren’t paid to tolerate. She had no children of her own. And so, in an admirable interpretation of the social contract, she recognised she had something in that line to give.

Jenefer Shute offers some riveting descriptions of such interactions, between the anorexic inpatient Josie and her carers, in her novel Life-Size. “In the body,” Josie chillingly muses, “as in art, perfection is attained not when there’s nothing left to add, but when there’s nothing left to take away.”

Armed with this credo, she can exercise contempt on everyone around her (“They say I’m sick, but what about them, who feast on corpses?”), in what becomes a radical reliving of her primary experiences of nurture. And it needs to be radicalised: this is the moral value of the anorexic statement, that it asks questions not just of mothers or fathers or fashion editors, but of the whole societal basis for the female image. This time around, Josie can speak her mind. She can criticise the people who care for her; she can re-experience the powerlessness of childhood and know it for what it is. So unpleasant is she to the “freckled cow” who nurses her that she finally gets the reprimand she has apparently been asking for:

“Josephine, I must ask you please not to speak to me like that. I’m not your servant.” And then, unable to contain herself: “And would you please look at me when I talk to you? It really gets on my nerves.” Coldly, victoriously, I remain precisely as I am. She really should have more control.

Soon after, however, the 68-pound tyrant, having agreed at last to eat something or be force-fed through a tube, makes a revealing request of her nurse: “I want you to feed me,” she says.

My acquaintance found it hard to muster much interest in herself at the day’s end. She rarely went out or saw people: it was as though her work had bled her of confidence. She sought not public interactions but the determined security of her private boundary. In the evenings she changed into loose clothes, shut herself in her room, shut herself into a book. She wanted to be where no one could demand anything of her, like a depleted mother, except with none of the prestige of motherhood. She never kept company with men, and her female world was wholly predicated on an insidious notion, that certain women are there to give attention and others to receive it. Sometimes it seemed that her patients had indeed stolen her image and left her with nothing to trade, nothing to barter with for some share of the world’s interest. They had stolen her image and left her a mere body that could find no reflection or definition for itself. She went back home for a few weeks on holiday and returned browner, more animated, and heavier. All that meat they went in for, meat roasted over a fire and served at every meal. But more to the point, a world in which food was an entitlement and a human bond.

In her own world food had become a weapon: her evening sandwich and her indifference were a kind of savourless pacifism she exercised against it. She spent her days among people who denied themselves food in order to experience, perhaps, power, whose apparent intention to make themselves invisible made them, in fact, visible, who had discovered that by becoming less they became more. And no­where was this clearer than in the fact that they required her as their witness, for disappearing was no fun unless someone noticed you’d gone. But if anyone was disappearing, if anyone was becoming invisible, it was she.

The question of how she had come to be stranded in this place remains difficult to answer, but its source may lie in the very practicality – the tractors, the horses – she had crossed the world to escape. Denied her own experience of femininity, she had perhaps embarked on a kind of pilgrimage to find and serve these notable victims to the riddling perversity of feminine values. She could help them, sit with them while they wept and shrieked over a teaspoonful of peas, she who had never had the temerity to question or refuse anything she had been given; she who was not important enough, as it were, to be anorexic, for the hieratic significance of the anorexic body depends on it having been ascribed a value in the first place. Had she tried to starve herself on the farm where she grew up, she might simply have died: her protest, in any case, would not have been understood. She had taken photographs of this place, on her recent trip home. In order to capture its isolation, she had photographed it from a distance, recording the miles of surrounding scrubland in a sequence of separate frames that she laid one next to another across the table in a long connecting strip. Amid these featureless wastelands she defied me to locate her home, and though my eyes searched and searched the landscape it was true that I could find no evidence of human habitation. She laughed, with an unmistakable and strangely exhilarated pride, and laid her finger over a low brown shape that crouched amid the boulders and bushes that extended all around it, on and on to the white horizon. It was so small her fingertip covered it. “There it is,” she said.

It may seem superfluous for a 45-year-old mother-of-two to say that she does not exult in the life of the body, but let’s just call it a place to begin. At the very least, as a statement, it raises numerous lines of inquiry. One might be: is it obligatory, or even a moral duty, to take pleasure in one’s own physical being? Leaving aside for a moment the question of what definition of pleasure one could possibly arrive at in this particular hall of mirrors, is the value of the physical quest in any way comparable with that of the artistic, the emotional, the spiritual?

I understand the anorexic’s notion of pleasure far better than the hedonist’s. Sometimes it has seemed to me that the second kind of pleasure is consequent on the first, that the life of sensation can be accessed only from a place of perfect self-discipline, rather as strict religious practices were once believed to constitute the narrow path to heaven. The anorexic, like the ascetic before her, publicly posits the immolation of the flesh as a manifestation of a primary physical discontent she is on her way to escaping: she represents a journey whose starting point is disgust. Body is found to be not only intolerable to but weaker than mind – how, then, can its desires and yearnings be taken seriously? The anorexic statement suggests a second body, one that will be painstakingly encroached on and attained; and hence, a second template for desire. This second body will belong to its owner as the first did not: its desires, therefore, will be experienced as not shameful, but true.

The female form is inherently susceptible to this duality, but the difficulty with the anorexic statement is that once it becomes open to other readings it breaks down. At some point in the journey a line is crossed: the slim body becomes the freakish starved body, and one by one the anorexic’s grounds for superiority are discredited and revoked. She is not beautiful but repellent, not self-disciplined but out of control, not enviable but piteous, and, most disappointing of all, she is publicly courting not freedom and desire but death. Even she may find these things difficult to believe. How to go back, on that journey? How to retrace one’s steps? For in getting where she needed to go the anorexic had to sacrifice the concept of normality. In a manner of speaking she sold her soul. She can never be “normal” about food or flesh again. So, how is she meant to live?

If the anorexic arouses irritation, even anger, it may be this quitting of normality that is to blame, because the female management of normality is a formidable psychical task from which most women don’t feel entitled to walk away. By quitting it she exposes it, she criticises it as a place to live, and moreover she forces each woman who passes her way to choose between denial and recognition of her statement, disgust.

Is it disgusting to be a woman? Menstruation, lactation, childbirth, the sexualisation of the female body – in recognising these things as her destiny, a girl is asked to forget everything that her prepubescent instincts might formerly have suggested to her. In becoming female she must cease to be universal, and relinquish the masculine in herself that permitted her as a child to find the idea of these things disgusting indeed. Likewise that masculine is now embodied for her in men, so the question becomes – do men find women disgusting? The anorexic statement dispenses with that perspective. It returns the woman to the universality of the child, and from that fusion formulates itself: I find myself disgusting.

If it has become a cultural cliché that women want to be thin more than they want to be loved (the three most cherished words these days, so the saying goes, being not “I love you” but “You’ve lost weight”), and moreover that they want to be thin not for men but for one another, the general observer might be tempted to view this as making the case for male innocence (at last!), even male redundancy.

Yet, looked at another way, the male and the preponderance of male values are perhaps more culpable in the incrimination of the female form than ever. An eating disorder epidemic suggests that love and disgust are being jointly marketed, as it were; that wherever the proposition might first have come from, the unacceptability of the female body has been disseminated culturally. Is it possible that disgust has finally got, in the famed male gaze, the upper hand? From whom, after all, has a woman ever wished to hear the words “I love you” but a man?

In Life-Size, Jenefer Shute posits the anorexic state as having two separate sources, one in the female (subjective, mother) and the other in the male (objective, father). Between them they engender in the anorexic subject the confusion between being and image of which one might suppose her to be merely an extreme cultural example. Mother – the female body – is indeed the source of disgust, but it is father – if one can be permitted the leap of seeing father as analogous with male and, indeed, with society – who makes that disgust public and hence catalyses it into shame. Without father, mother might merely have passed her disgust silently on to daughter, where it would have remained as an aspect of her private, interior being. But father brings it to the surface: it is something not just felt but now also seen. These confirmations, in Shute’s narrative, of interior suspicion (am I disgusting?) by outward commentary (yes, you are) are fatal to female self-perception in ways that might seem obvious but are none­theless intractable.

Outside and inside – image and being – are now held to be one: the girl/woman revisits and tests this impossibility by becoming the observer – the male – herself, looking at and remarking on the bodies of other women. Naturally, the discovery that image can be changed is not new: it is and always has been part of becoming a woman, in a sense that, although slenderness has long been a feminine ideal, self-hatred and the compulsion to starve oneself to death have broadly not. The question of disgust returns, accompanied by its shadow, the question of pleasure.

A personal admission: not long ago, in a period of great turmoil, I lost a considerable amount of weight. The first thing to say about this is that I was unaware, inexplicably, that it had happened. That my clothes no longer fitted passed me by: I noticed it only because other people told me so. They appeared shocked: each time I met someone I knew, there it would be, shock, a startled expression on the face. At first, I was startled in turn. They were not seeing who they expected to see; who, then, were they seeing? After a while I got used to it: indeed, I came to expect, almost to require it. A newborn baby needs to be mirrored by another human being in order to grasp that she has an outward surface, that this “self” has an appearance, that her image speaks. Through the shock of others I learned that I, too, had been shocked, that I was no longer the person I once was. My image was speaking, to me as well as to other people, telling me things I did not yet appear to know or realise.

But eventually the question of “normality” returned, as it must in the life of a 45-year-old mother-of-two. Stop, help me, feed me: this may have been my cry, but the truth was there was no one, any more, to answer. There could be no illusion, as an adult; I had left it too late to stage this apotheosis, this defeat of the first body, predicated as it is on the expectation of rescue. I had to draw back from it myself. And this was where the problem arose, because, like the anorexic, I found I could not retrace my steps, could not, as it were, go back to sleep. For years I had lived in my body half-consciously, ignoring it mostly, dismissing its agendas wherever I could, and forever pressing it into the service of mental conceptions that resulted, almost as a by-product, sometimes in its pleasuring and sometimes in its abuse. People were always telling me I should do yoga: this was one of the running jokes I had against my own flesh, for the idea that I would suspend the intellectual adventure of living even for one hour to dwell in the dumb and inarticulate realm of the auto-corporeal was as unappealing as that of spending an evening with someone I disliked. Now, as the weeks passed, instead of shock, my appearance was beginning to elicit milder manifestations of concern. I didn’t know what it meant: had I changed again? Was I no longer fragile and vulnerable? I had no idea. Never before in my life had I dared to be fragile, and all I knew was that I wasn’t ready to leave what I had become. “Have you ever thought of doing yoga?” someone said.

As a teenager I had been tormented by hunger and by an attendant self-disgust, for I saw in other girls a balance, an openness of form, that suggested they had nothing inside of which they need be ashamed. Their bodies were like well-schooled ponies, handsome and obedient, whereas I had a monster inside me whose appeasement was forever disrupting the outward surface of life. It craved so many things it could barely discriminate between them, and so indiscrimination – the failure to distinguish between what mattered and what didn’t, what helped and what didn’t, what it needed and what just happened to be there – became its public nature. It wanted, in fact, what it could get, in the light of what it couldn’t.

How thoroughly the tangible and the in­tangible confused themselves in those years. Creativity, the placement of internal material into space, the rendering tangible, became my weapon against that confusion.

When I left my boarding school – the blue serge uniform and the Cambridgeshire drizzle, the plates of stodge that were so predictable and real, the torturing sense of female possi­bilities that were not – I learned to manage the monster, more or less. Like the first Mrs Rochester it had a locked room of its own, from which it sometimes succeeded in breaking free to rend into shreds my fantasies of femininity, but I had set my mind on higher things. By locking up the monster I was making myself at heart unfree: what did I know of freedom in any case? I was accustomed to fantasy and to the safety – albeit uncomfortable – it supplied, and the notion of an integrated self was the most uncomfortable fantasy of all. In a sense, it was the monster: I could neither kill it nor live with it, and so there it remained, caged, bellowing and banging intermittently through the years, creating perhaps the sense of something amiss in those who came close to me, but caged all the same.

Yoga, understandably enough, was out: nothing could have persuaded me to enter that cage armed only with a sun salute. But my sudden emaciation in middle age did bring me into contact with the monster again, for, amid all the other losses, there in the rubble of the desecrated life, I appeared to see it lying dead at my feet. The Jungian notion of the “middle passage”, in which at mid-life all the templates for self expire or fall away, in which with sufficient destruction one has a chance to return to the blankness of birth, might have explained that death well enough to avoid detection: it simply went up in the fire, the horrible secret, along with everything else. And here, after all, was a chance to be free of my own image, the bind in which my body had held me for all these years, because, while wanting more than anything to be feminine, I had only and ever found my own femininity disgusting. This image, knitted together over time by questions and confirmations (Am I disgusting? Yes, you are), was one I was now prepared to sustain: I was poised to make the anorexic statement, to vanish, to let image and being finally become one.

But of course, no such thing occurs: there is no “letting”, no seamless transposition of the flesh. The anorexic body is held in the grip of will alone; its meaning is far from stable. What it says – notice me, feed me, mother me – is not what it means, for such attentions constitute an agonising test of that will, and also threaten to return the body to the dreaded “normality” it has been such ecstasy to escape.

For the first time since my teenage years I found myself tormented again by hunger: the monster had awoken from its slumber, bigger and more ferocious than ever. The route back to normality being blocked, I have had to devise other ways of getting there, or of seeming to. My occupational therapist acquaintance tells me that many of her patients are women of my age, women who have suddenly tried to slip the noose of their female flesh once its story – menstruation, lactation, childbirth – has been told in all its glory and shame.

When I relate this to my female friends they take it humorously, rolling their eyes and laughing, gallantly owning up – oh yes, they say, we know – to monsters of their own. Most of them haven’t delivered themselves into its jaws quite so thoroughly as I have; their dislike of their own bodies is a kind of low-level irritant, a necessary component of the female environment, but to think about it too much would spoil everyone’s fun.

I don’t want to spoil anyone’s fun, either, though for now I have spoiled my own. It did seem, for a while, as though the death-state of physical denial might contain the possibility of transcendence, the chance to step out of my self-disgust and make true contact at last: contact of my “real”, my second, self with the outer world. That I felt this had always been denied me, that in the negotiation between being and image all, for me, had been lost, was a stark kind of truth to face up to. Passing other women in the street these days, I seem to hear their bodies speaking. A lot of what they say is unclear to me, or at the very least so foreign that it takes me a moment to translate it. For instance: I accept myself. Or: respect me. The ones I like best are the ones that say, trust me. What I will never be able to hear unequivocally, whether whispered or shrieked, is: desire me. Notice me, feed me, mother me. Passing by the anorexic girl, stepping lightly and silently in the shadows, I hear her message and in a way I salute her for it. Other bodies have other messages, but for this one I have ears.

Rachel Cusk is most recently the author of “Aftermath: on Marriage and Separation” (Faber & Faber, £12.99)

This article first appeared in the 05 November 2012 issue of the New Statesman, What if Romney wins?

MARTIN O’NEILL FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Shakespeare, our contemporary: the Bard 400 years later

To mark the 400th anniversary of the playwright’s death, our contributors nominate the works that speak most urgently to the 21st century.

Dodgy dossiers, smiling tyrants and just wars: Rowan Williams on Henry V

Financial interests dictate the inception of an international war; dossiers are drawn up to quiet the moral qualms of a government and present the action as just; deep anxieties are aired about the duties of conscience in a dubious conflict; breaches of convention over the rights of prisoners are hastily brushed aside; but finally the role of this war in creating longer-term instability and loss of life is quietly but unmistakably flagged up.

It is not quite the synopsis of Henry V that those brought up on Olivier or even Branagh would recognise, but it is no less the play Shakespeare actually wrote, and it is the past 14 years that have helped us hear clearly these notes of moral darkness in the text. Underlying the play is the consistent theme of Shakespeare’s histories: a sharp tension around the legitimacy of the monarchy. That tension was also a pervasive subtext in Elizabethan politics and theology, and it is a measure of Shakespeare’s stature that he explores it so unsparingly. His Henry knows that he holds his authority as a result of his father’s usurpation; he is king because of a successful act of violence. Yet that authority is one which ought to allow him to absolve his subjects of any doubts as to the rightness of acts of violence committed in his service. It ought to be a matter of unequivocal holy duty. And because – whatever else he is – King Henry is no fool, he senses and expresses the moral tangle this leaves him in.

What authority does state power have when stripped of its magic?

Regime change (Richard II’s deposition) has been justified by citing the undoubted corruption and injustice of the old order (Richard’s chaotic, selfish rule); but once the sacred sanction of kingship has been overturned in this way, what legitimacy has the new order? Henry wants to be something of the “icon” earlier kings had been, and we see him both exploiting this iconic position and being exploited by others. Shakespeare allows us to see something of the inner anguish this entails; but he does not let us ignore the more immediate anguish of those who will pay with their lives (and their souls?) for this new order of force: the soldiers whose muted but tough prose questions Henry never quite deals with, despite his magnificent gift for poetic public rhetoric.

This is a play about what the moral sanctions are in the politics of an incipiently secularised world; what authority does state power have when it is stripped of its magic? Typically, Shakespeare does not offer a solution, but broadens out our sense of why there is a question here. It’s left to other plays – Lear, above all – to nudge us towards an answer in the visible, costly solidarity of powerful and powerless: no less a theologically charged theme for Shakespeare.

In Henry V, a play whose language is a shot-silk blend of the triumphalistic and the bleak, he presents us with an analysis of why we should worry about the ethical sanctions of power; why majoritarian tyranny, absolute monarchy or the comforting rhetoric of national paranoia will fail to silence the questions of a soldier on the eve of battle, a civilian facing slaughter in a captured city or a prisoner of war whose rights are overridden.

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A timely warning  from the blasted heath: Will Self on King Lear

It may be a reflection of my own time of life that I find Shakespeare’s King Lear the most resonant of his plays – but I also think it’s peculiarly relevant to the contemporary era; and more specifically to a small – but politically powerful – section of contemporary Britons: the middle-aged, property-owning middle class. For my own part, I may only be in my mid-fifties, but as with so many people at my time of life, health issues have already placed me vis-à-vis with the grinning skull beneath my own slackening skin.

The most savage social declivity now lies between young and old

The very moral-philosophic kernel of Lear lies in its portrayal of a man who has conflated his social identity with his true being: Lear gifts his kingdom to his daughters in anticipation of them loving him for who he is; but apart from the recalcitrant – and faithful – Cordelia, it transpires that his progeny can’t make this distinction; for them he is either the king, or nothing worthy of consideration at all.

Out on the blasted heath, attended by his Fool, and two others who can make this crucial distinction (Edgar and Kent), Lear descends into a maelstrom of confusion over what it is to be a person at all. “Out of my sight!” he inveighs against his loyal courtier Kent, who has the temerity to object to his sovereign’s rash behaviour; and Kent throws back at him: “See better, Lear; and let me still remain.”

From Cordelia’s Portion by Ford Madox Brown. Image: Phas/Uig via Getty Images

Remain Kent does, but he, like Edgar, is compelled to undergo the reverse transformation to Lear: they assume false social identities in order to hide their true and faithful being. This is the timeless existential dilemma that lies at the core of Lear: are we who others think we are, or are we simply the perpetual flux of ideas and emotions we find when, in extremis, we enquire too deeply within? But there’s a specific message for our own era as well; for are our increasingly long-lived, property-owning classes not like anti-Lears, hanging on to their semi-detached castles for grim death, rather than face up to the fact that they’ve raised little Regans and Gonerils?

The most savage social and economic declivity in contemporary Britain lies between the young and the old – the ageing cling to a Lear-like conception of ourselves: we believe we should be revered by and cared for by our children; yet our behaviour utterly belies this: we hang on to our property out of fear – fear that should we abandon it we’ll be dumped unceremoniously when the time comes, in a local-authority-funded care home, where we will be poorly attended to by knaves, fools and impersonators.

It is part of the great cultural convulsion of our era that the status of Shakespeare’s writings should be so moot during this, his quatercentennial year. Once viewed as foundational – together with the King James Bible – of the English canon, all that was once solidly papery now melts into pixels; and this, too, seems anticipated by Lear, which, with its recurrent motifs of seeing and sightlessness, culminates with its protagonists getting what they do indeed see: nothing. A fate foreseen by Lear in the very first scene: “Nothing can come of nothing.” Unfortunately, the British rentier class has been labouring under the delusion that it has been getting something for nothing for too long to heed this warning from the blasted heath of four centuries past.

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Technology’s quest to kill off death: Imogen Stubbs on The Tempest

In 1989 I was in a production of Othello at the Other Place – a wonderful, mad theatre that began and ended life as a corrugated iron shed in a car park. Before the theatre was vacated – to be bulldozed the following day – Trevor Nunn made a very moving speech to the cast and crew and then read Prospero’s speech from Act IV, Scene One of The Tempest:

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

I wept. We all did. It was unbearable – especially for the not unambitious actors among us – to think that nothing endured. Whatever the achievement, however lauded, we would “leave not a rack behind” – “rack” as in “cloud”.

Now, 27 years later, I have changed. And the world has changed. I am impaled on the speech in a very different way. It seems now to offer wisdom, solace and something between relief and a reprieve: the reassuring idea that a heartbeat decides when our little life begins and ends – not a search engine and the Delete key.

It is increasingly difficult to melt into the air and dissolve. The idea that our life is temporal and seasonal seems out of touch in the 21st-century world of virtual reality, data, microchips, holograms, DNA, genetic engineering, plastic surgery and all-year-round strawberries. It’s a world that denies history if it is uncomfortable, and the future if it is distressing, and treats death, wisdom and ageing, and indeed narrative, like wrongs to be hushed up. The purpose is to endorse hedonism and materialism – to protect our “revels” from any unnecessary worry that the end is in sight.

It’s a world that actively encourages the dangerous fantasy of eternal youth and the delusion that no one ever has to leave the nursery; a world gullible enough to accept “inbuilt obsolescence” in objects but not in ourselves. It’s a world clutching at tinsel as it falls over the abyss.

Many of us leave behind the ultimate rack: “the cloud”. The cloud sounds heavenly – all fluffy and white and pure – and holds our essence for the foreseeable future if not for ever, preserved and accessible after death with a mere password. There is something Faustian in the pact.

Ironically, Shakespeare contradicts his own speech. Through his plays he lives on – and they are performed all over the world, including at the resurrected “great Globe” itself. He is not the soul of one age but for all time, whether he is being performed through the medium of hip-hop or by Lego figures or in Klingon.

But of course his work can be preserved for longer and longer as technology advances. And who knows? Maybe one day Shakespeare’s body will be dug up in a car park and his DNA will be analysed and reassembled and then, like the Globe, Shakespeare will be reconstructed anew.

He can buy Richard III a latte at the Globe café and try to justify his misrepresentation of him, before whipping out his laptop and composing a masterpiece about genetic engineering to be performed by holograms – being sure to save it to the cloud, with the password “BraveNewWorld”.

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How human beings learn to hate: Howard Jacobson on The Merchant of Venice

Can it be that we go on finding new meanings in Shakespeare, or is it that he gave us the language to think afresh about ourselves? It is through Shakespeare that we know what being modern is: free from irrationality, alone in a world we understand imperfectly and usually too late. And free from political or religious dogma, too. The play’s the thing in Shakespeare – the interrelation of character our only guide to truth. What does Shakespeare believe? For all dramatic purposes, nothing. An age that tries as hard as ours to fall back into ideological credulousness – desperate to find answers in systems – more than ever needs Shakespeare’s scepticism.

I have been immersed in The Merchant of Venice for the past couple of years, having accepted a publisher’s challenge to write a contemporary novel that takes its inspiration from that play. What is immediately remarkable to anyone watching or reading the play is its here-and-nowness, the raciness of the dialogue and the modernity of the agitation shaking most of the characters, despite its very particular Venetian setting, the old stories and fables that peep through its narrative, and the medieval attitudes towards Jews that move the action from near-languorous comedy to frenetic tragedy.

The very first line is a confession of what sounds much like a 21st-century malady. Antonio, the merchant, is depressed: “In sooth, I know not why I am so sad.” Hamlet confesses to a similar ailment (“I have of late,—but wherefore I know not,—lost all my mirth”) but we believe his “of late”, whereas Antonio strikes us as someone who never had much in the way of mirth to begin with. His circle quickly reveals itself to be self-engrossed; precious about its membership; indulgent towards its own whimsicality and rapacity alike; violently disposed towards anyone outside it. Shakespeare would return to Venice for a setting, again to show the virulence of a prejudice: first Shylock the Jew, then Othello the Moor. Why Venice, we might ask, and the answer could have something to do with the cosmopolitan nature of the city. But essentially these antagonisms could have been found anywhere that Jews or Moors happened to be. And there weren’t that many of either in the London of Shakespeare’s time. The subject isn’t Venetian intolerance; it’s that germ of cruel vindictiveness that poisons every man and woman, even those possessed of grace and manners, when they encounter difference.

This doesn’t mean that either play is sentimental about its victims. Othello is the author of his own downfall, as is Shylock. But downfalls are contingent in Shakespeare. We can’t say that Shylock would have insisted on his pound of flesh if his daughter, Jessica, had not been stolen from him. We can’t even say he ever really intended to claim it. It began as a daring joke – Shylock meeting Antonio’s insolence with insolence of his own. But mischief breeds in Shakespeare. Events become uncoupled from intention and end in undreamt-of sorrow. The plays refuse the politics of blame or exculpation. This is how people are and there’s an end of it. There is no right way to be. Shylock believes he has justice on his side, and he does. But his obduracy is still his own; he can’t blame it all on Jew-hating. Neither are the Jew-haters vindicated in their loathing: to them, Shylock is simply acting out the savage logic of his faith, but they are parties to his shaming and are demeaned by it.

With Shylock stolen from for a second time, baited sadistically and ordered to convert to Christianity – which says little for the mercy Portia pleads with him to show – their mock-pastoral idyll turns sour. Mistrust mars their revels and, after all their graceful talk of love, the final note, struck by that upmarket thug, Gratiano, is a gratuitous obscenity. For Shylock a ring is a token of devotion. For Gratiano it’s the opportunity to pun on a vagina.

Whatever Shakespeare knew or thought of Jews, the stage is rancid and depleted once the Jew has left it. Not so much on account of any virtue of his own, but because his defeat tastes so bitter, and there is no joy in the company of those who have triumphed over him. Shakespeare never lectures, but he teaches that we needn’t revere a man to pity him: it is enough to recognise the humanity we share. But then we share that with the wolfish characters, too. This is Shakespeare’s truth for all time: that heroes fail of heroism, that our passions delude us into hatred, that whoever thinks he has hold of right or wisdom has hold of nothing, and that our little life is rounded with a sleep.

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Finding new words for a war on terror: James Shapiro on Macbeth

Its atmosphere is murky from the start. Regicide, political repression, betrayal, equivocation and another round of regime change soon follow. Toss in a childless and compensatory marriage, driving ambition and sinister, other-worldly forces, and it is easy to see why Macbeth continues to speak with such immediacy.

It seems hardly coincidental that the play was first staged in the aftermath of a failed terrorist attack. Shakespeare wrote Macbeth in the fraught months following the Gunpowder Plot, when 20 or so disaffected Catholic gentry tried to blow up the House of Lords while the royal family and the political and religious leadership of England were gathered there. King James himself estimated that had the plot succeeded perhaps 30,000 innocent Londoners would have died in the explosion and engulfing fires.

James McAvoy in the Scottish play, 2013. Photograph: Johan Persson

In the ensuing months, the conspirators and their Jesuit handlers were hunted down, tortured, tried and brutally executed. Macbeth, which speaks so powerfully to our historical moment, was steeped in its own, one in which contemporaries struggled to understand where such evil came from, whether neighbours who worshipped differently could be trusted, and what it meant to have come so close to large-scale destruction.

 Modern playgoers often complain about the difficulty of anachronism in Shakespeare: words that even illiterate Elizabethan playgoers easily understood but we no longer grasp. It can work the other way around, too: in Macbeth, one word in particular, familiar to children today, would have gone over the heads of many at the Globe Theatre. That foreign-sounding and multisyllabic term occurs early in the play, when Macbeth struggles with whether he should kill his king and kinsman, Duncan:

If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well
It were done quickly. If th’assassination
Could trammel up the consequence . . .

One can imagine the mumbling in the pit when Richard Burbage recited this speech in the spring of 1606 – “What did he say? Assassination?” – for this is the word’s first recorded use. Shakespeare had likely come upon a version of it in Richard Knolles’s General History of the Turks (1603), where he would have read of the “assassins, a company of most desperate and dangerous men among the Mahometans”. The term apparently lodged in his memory, for in the wake of the attempt on the life of King James in November 1605, he refigured it and coined “assassination”.

Even as Shakespeare went back to medieval Britain to discover a story that spoke to his own times, I return to this Jacobean tragedy to find a play that speaks most directly to ours. To naysayers who wonder how a play about devilish forces still proves so terrifying in our secular age, I need only point out that alone among Shakespeare’s plays this malevolent tragedy retains such power that actors still fear to pronounce its name.

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An erotic playground for gender-fluid times: Andrew Marr on As You Like It

In this endlessly difficult world, comedy is just as valid a response as tragedy; and great comedy is at least as difficult to write as great tragedy. In choosing Shakespeare’s sunniest, wittiest comedy, rather than something dark and tangled, I am not taking an easy option. In these dark days, economically and internationally, there is no better time to remind ourselves that potential Edens are inside us and all around us. Shakespeare was obsessed by power – above all, power badly exercised and corrupted. The poet of an intensely hierarchical age, and a lifelong loather of puritanism, Shakespeare the anarchist comes through in As You Like It.

The play would have been better titled Rosalind, after the novel it was based upon. Of all Shakespeare’s heroines, none is bigger. Rosalind is saner than Juliet or Ophelia; wittier than even Beatrice; and at least as great an advocate for human love as Imogen or Miranda. Unlike them, she overwhelms the boundaries of her play, just as Falstaff overwhelms Lancastrian England, and Hamlet overwhelms Danish politics. She belongs in the very top flight of Shakespearean character invention; and is the only one in that company who is female. If you don’t love Rosalind, you don’t love being alive.

Cartoon: George Leigh

As You Like It is set everywhere and nowhere, a dense green parallel world, both France (the Ardennes) and not-France (the Forest of Arden). It’s a European woody paradise, haunted by the memories of pagan mythology and Robin Hood; it’s a generalised Italianate Mediterranean republic of refugees. Arden is a free, genial anti-court, a realm of personal questing and endless witty conversation during which those great cynics, Jacques and Touchstone, challenge everything and introduce a sharp dose of nihilist vinegar into Arcadia.

This is a sweet world, but not a sickly or escapist one. It is also an exuberantly erotic world. The androgynous complexities of a girl-dressed-as-a-boy loving a boy and sometimes a girl makes the play especially interesting in these gender-fluid days, though in the end Rosalind is robustly in love with the muscle-bound and not enormously intelligent Orlando. Some of her sharp-tongued truth-telling about love and sex is as shocking as the most direct of Shakespeare’s sonnets; and yet, unlike with them, we always believe in the kindness of the intelligence behind the words.

 Around Arcadia, there remains the brutal world of power, hemming us in. Young wrestlers can be crippled for life, ancient retainers can be abruptly sacked, murder is plotted and outside the woodland a genuine tyrant prowls, as dangerous and illogical as Leontes or Lear. The wild wood is the zone of human refuge; but it has borders.

It is the goodness, balance and sanity of Rosalind and the exiled Duke which triumph over power-lust and cynicism. Human society is shit, Shakespeare seems to suggest, but not always and not inevitably. To pick up the refrain of a clown from another play, the rain it raineth every day; but not everywhere. Winter bites in the Ardennes, but sunlight dapples the Arden we carry inside ourselves; and in tough times, no truth matters more.

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In praise of sceptics against fanatics: Germaine Greer on Hamlet

Hamlet is possibly the most theatrical play ever written. This is not to say that it is the most histrionic or spectacular, or particularly replete with scenes and machines. Shakespeare’s theatre is unique in its unremitting awareness of the audience. The audience is the point of the action and supplies the context of the action. Schoolmen and aristocrats might condescend to the audience, but Shakespeare never did (another reason for believing that he was neither a schoolman nor an aristocrat). The audience is in the theatre before the action begins, and the action is allowed to begin by their kind forbearance. So whether in the brightness of a summer’s afternoon on Bankside or in a stuffy theatre in the West End, the audience must consent to believe that the action of Hamlet begins in the cold and dark on the windy battlements of Elsinore. On stage is a character who will be with us at the end; Horatio will witness pretty much the whole action of the play and, like the audience, be powerless to intervene.

 When we first see Hamlet himself he, too, is a silent witness of the goings-on in the “room of state” until he answers his mother’s question with a daring claim for any actor, that he has “that within which passeth show”. He claims integrity and the audience has no choice but to grant it. By doing so, we agree to travel with Hamlet through the treacherous Danish court and to keep faith with him even if he should appear to be deranged. We are never allowed entirely to suspend our disbelief; disbelief is part of the point. Hamlet is not incapable of action: he refuses to be the dupe of circumstance or to be corrupted by the Machiavellian ethos of the court. To pretend that he has some kind of duty to avenge his father’s murder is to accept the convention of the revenge tragedy as some kind of moral imperative. Rather than avenge his father’s murder, Hamlet expiates it, so ending the cycle of evil.

Of overriding importance, then, are Hamlet’s soliloquies. These are not mere mumblings or musings but Hamlet’s explaining himself to his allies the audience, who will have been sorely tried by his assumed guises. We believe the soliloquies as we believe little else in the play. So, it is the more to be regretted that the soliloquy most likely to be dropped is the last one, “How all occasions do inform against me”; at this point the audience could be pardoned for shouting to Hamlet not to follow the example of Fortinbras, who is sending 20,000 men “to their graves like beds” for a “fantasy and trick of fame”.

As it happens, Hamlet goes open-eyed to his death as an innocent victim, and Denmark is redeemed. Even so, the audience is not allowed to relax; the new ruler of Denmark will be Fortinbras. A corrupt regime has been replaced by the military.

Doubt is not Hamlet’s problem, but his duty. To avoid contributing to the cycle of evil, he must cling to his disbelief and resist precipitate action. Even so the rest of us must resist indoctrination; in the world as in the theatre, scepticism is our only defence against fanaticism. 

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Ralph Steadman

An ode to global forgiveness: Simon Callow on The Tempest

Shakespeare’s plays have the curious capacity to be about whatever you want them to be about. Recently, Hamlet has become a play about CCTV cameras: Denmark’s a prison, and all that. In the Thirties, in the light of Freud, it was an Oedipal drama; in the Sixties, an existential tragedy. For me, though, the play that creates the biggest echoes in our lives is The Tempest, the last play Shakespeare wrote of which he was sole author. We have had existential productions (early Sixties), post-colonial productions (late Sixties), all-singing, all-dancing productions (Seventies), the-world-as-theatre productions (Eighties). But though all of these approaches are not without justification, it is at heart a revenge play.

It seems to me that we live increasingly in a world fuelled by revenge, a world that seeks to punish past misdemeanours, whether political, sexual, financial or imperial – an angry world. In The Tempest, Prospero, cruelly usurped and cast out by his brother, deals with his anger. Instead of punishing the perpetrators of the injustice against him, he succeeds, by a monumental effort of will, in forgiving them:

Though with their high wrongs I am struck to the quick,
Yet with my nobler reason ’gainst my fury
Do I take part: the rarer action is
In virtue than in vengeance: they being penitent,
The sole drift of my purpose doth extend
Not a frown further. Go release them, Ariel . . .

However elusive, surely this is the way the world must move if it is to survive.

The play is especially moving and powerful because it seems to represent Shakespeare wrestling with his own bitterness and anger, as he does in Timon of Athens – but there he fails to achieve closure. The world he puts on stage in The Tempest is, if anything, more dismaying than Timon’s: scheming and murderous courtiers, faithless brothers, a hopelessly sozzled butler, a witless jester, a runtish monster – a “freckled whelp hag-born”, as Prospero viciously describes him, “not honour’d with/A human shape”. Apart from one honest courtier, old Gonzalo, all Prospero’s hopes for humanity repose in his daughter, Miranda, and his usurping brother’s son, Ferdinand. Their goodness, united in marriage, will somehow offer hope for the future. Shakespeare only just manages to make these paragons human, living creatures, but he achieves it in the end: we believe in them, Shakespeare’s and Prospero’s last hope for mankind.

Forgiveness is finally achieved. The world can start again. Prospero renounces his magic, liberates Ariel, and owns up to his own shadow: Caliban. “This thing of darkness I/Acknowledge mine.” Returning the island he has ruled to its native inhabitants, he goes back to Naples a wiser man.

. . . Now I want
Spirits to enforce, art to enchant;
And my ending is despair,
Unless I be reliev’d by prayer,
Which pierces so, that it assaults
Mercy itself, and frees all faults.

The Tempest should be our textbook in world-healing. 

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Pure confusion – the true human experience: Colm Tóibín on The Winter’s Tale

Why is Leontes, King of Sicilia, so insanely paranoid, so jealous, so angry, so whimsical and bullying, so ready to accuse and listen to no one and impose his will?

There might have been a time when audiences would have needed some show of motive, when Hermione, his queen, and Polixenes would have been asked to display some more open affection for each other or offer some sign that would then have justified Leontes’s response.

Now, because we know so much about the intimacy of power – not merely absolute power, but any kind of power – we see Leontes as our contemporary. He works in a company where he has the corner office. Or he is at the end of a phone. He throws tantrums. He sends emails.

Or he has been elected to office. Or he is a dictator. He isn’t just on television; he owns the cable company; he owns the production company that makes the programmes. He and his antics are so all-pervasive in our culture, and so widely reported and emulated, that Leontes will even remind audiences how certain women behave when they get to be in charge.

Yet there is another aspect of the play that makes it even more important for us now, and that is Paulina, the one who is unafraid. When we think of the phrase “speaking truth to power”, she is the best example we have. Measured, fearless, morally serious – she has come to matter in our time because she is so scarce, so badly needed.

There are two other aspects of the play that make it essential for us now. One is the middle part where Leontes and Paulina disappear. This can often seem too long, too much a distraction, until we start paying attention to it. Then we relish the wit, the way the words are chosen and conjured with, and the sheer playfulness. This may not seem a good example of the moral seriousness that has been at the heart of the drama earlier. Rather, it is an exalted example of the mind at play. It offers a sort of imaginative openness that is filled with sharp intelligence tempered with wonder and humour.

But the aspect of The Winter’s Tale that will make it matter not just now, but at all times, is the ending. Leontes’s grief, the sense of some order restored, the notion that sheer pain can be matched with its very opposite, are dramatised. The moral is that the experience of pure confusion is perhaps the truest experience we will have on Earth.

And then, as the play comes to an end, we are presented with the idea that the mind can imagine miracles, the theatre can work with transformation and that the dull business of being alive can be brightened and made into shimmering strangeness. The last scene is a tribute from a great artist to the power of the imagination; it is a prayer of thanks to illusion.

There will never be a time when these moments of the play will not lift us out of our sphere into some realm where we feel we may truly belong, even if only in our own imaginations or in our highest, sweetest, most outlandish dreams.

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Olivier’s Othello: A new poem by Daljit Nagra

The invention of Race and its run on the blood.
A man teased from his skin then back into skin.
The switch executed on stage. This time Olivier
plays the man. Olivier whose Christian name
is surname to empire’s swashbuckling generals.
He was destined to be the General. No wonder,
William, you distance the master from the Moor
so we hear of Othello amongst Anthropophagi
at which Olivier’s blackface bares the exotic.
Your raw politics of ink when actors must vent
waves of iambs on a feral reek over the ages.
To pinnacle with leering Olivier on a parapet,
Goats and monkeys! So the darks of his bulbous
eyes roll upwards to play the sport of the hot
globe kept back. Aided by your, [He] falls in
a trance. Africa afloat on Arabian charms.

A version preserved by the National Theatre
of Great Britain, adored by Oscar nominations
must be fair-minded. Perhaps I should weigh
the finale in terms of Desdemona, white as
Civilisation, being savoured, while snuffed,
by a nasty mass for her privileged ignorance?
Or admire Othello’s proud speech, a savage
in dashing robes with a blade, the face-to-face
of hero and anti-hero, as he calmly exploits our
sound traditions. To martyr the Moor within
so we win our catharsis. Or equally perverse
that Olivier, who’d persevered under polish,
now arises like a Deus ex Machina, in cahoots
with his Renaissance bard, to execute justice.
The curtain must fall for the white man’s bow.

Have I misunderstood the play? If art begins
in dreams should I turn on the staged instigator?
Which is he, the poet’s piercing aside – the devil?
Is he also the black man in his act of playing up,
or his guise – the idol who administers the shame?
The one who pulls the strings of horror is least
rewarding. He’s the poster-boy for his cohort.
How can he be hurt now his cause can’t be hurt?
Ah Swan of Avon, or are you the Upstart Crow,
you’re always at play in my head. To leave me
irked by my applause when the dream lives on.

 

Daljit Nagra’s books include Look We Have Coming to Dover! – for which he won the 2007 Forward Prize – and Ramayana: a Retelling.

This article first appeared in the 21 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Shakespeare 400 years Iater