Poets and their visions 35: Shakespeare 5 – Images of self


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Love is of course the dominant theme of Antony and Cleopatra, though we are also always conscious of the struggle for power that lies behind the passion of the main characters. The running commentary as it were that is provided by Enobarbus, one of the most significant of Shakespeare’s minor characters, helps us keep the whole dramatic love affair in perspective, given indeed that what was going on was a struggle for the soul of Europe. Had Antony won out, I suspect Christianity would not have spread so readily, and a less structured system of government might have provided greater space for Middle Eastern cults rather than monotheism.

But while the background is important, and the powerful last words of the future Augustus Caesar make clear what was at stake

Take up her bed;
And bear her women from the monument:
She shall be buried by her Antony:
No grave upon the earth shall clip in it
A pair so famous. High events as these
Strike those that make them; and their story is
No less in pity than his glory which
Brought them to be lamented. Our army shall
In solemn show attend this funeral;
And then to Rome.

the power of the play lies in its depiction of love in a warm climate. The language exudes sensuality but also expressed devotion of a sort that governed perceptions of what romantic love means for future generations. One has only to set the earlier statements of passion

Nay, pray you, seek no colour for your going,
But bid farewell, and go: when you sued staying,
Then was the time for words: no going then;
Eternity was in our lips and eyes,
Bliss in our brows’ bent; none our parts so poor,
But was a race of heaven: they are so still,
Or thou, the greatest soldier of the world,
Art turn’d the greatest liar.

against Cleopatra’s final lament to understand how love can grow and take the place of all else

I dream’d there was an Emperor Antony:
O, such another sleep, that I might see
But such another man!

His face was as the heavens; and therein stuck
A sun and moon, which kept their course,
and lighted
The little O, the earth….

His legs bestrid the ocean: his rear’d arm
Crested the world: his voice was propertied
As all the tuned spheres, and that to friends;
But when he meant to quail and shake the orb,
He was as rattling thunder. For his bounty,
There was no winter in’t; an autumn ’twas
That grew the more by reaping: his delights
Were dolphin-like; they show’d his back above
The element they lived in: in his livery
Walk’d crowns and crownets; realms and islands were
As plates dropp’d from his pocket…

Think you there was, or might be, such a man
As this I dream’d of?
Continue reading

Acts of Faith – Chapter 1; Pt 2 – Elementary

acts-of-faithIt may be as well at this point to describe some relationships, which will give a foretaste of the incestuous nature of the society and the plot we are unfolding. Indra is the son of Dick by his first wife Dulice, his only legitimate wife as she insists. Dulcie is the cousin of Tom’s wife Geraldine, called Gerry for short.  Dulcie and Gerry are also cousins of Phyllis, who will have rather an important part to play in our story when she comes charging down from her wonderful hills.

Gerry and Dulcie and Phyllis were the daughters of three brothers who, during the first world war and thereafter, made vast quantities of money through ship chartering and arrack renting and newspaper publishing and plumbago mining and even insurance broking. Gerry was an only child, the daughter of the eldest brother who had not made as much money as the other two; it was widely rumoured that she had spurred Tom on energetically throughout his political career so that she could make up for this initial deficiency. Unfortunately for the couple, their dynasty would die with them for their only child, a daughter, had been both a mongol and had, mercifully for else she would certainly have been overwhelmed with offers of marriage after Tom’s elevation to the Presidency, expired some years later. Tom, it was said, had been so upset by this that he had stopped sleeping with his wife. It was also said, though this was by no means intended as a reflection upon Tom, that his resolution had come as an immense relief to her.

Being a rational woman, she had no objections to his seeking solace elsewhere but she had insisted that he be sterilized beforehand. This was an operation he had found embarrassing to begin with, but he now numbered it amongst his many firsts. In his immediate family circle it was considered a blessing that the scar was too small to be exhibited in public. Tom certainly believed that the fact of the operation had enhanced his popularity, extravagantly fond as he was of claiming that, unlike his predecessors in power, he had no plans to establish a dynasty. In exhibiting at public meetings his battle scars in the cause of freedom, one obtained when he was in the cadet corps at school during the first world war, another added many years later during a peaceful demonstration that the then government had ruthlessly attacked, he never failed to mention his most vital scar, one obtained in the cause of higher freedoms, from hunger and over-population and excessive expenditure on subsidies and all the other dreadful things from which the International Monetary Fund was assisting him to wean the nation. Despite the magnificence of his other achievements, he would proudly proclaim he was proudest of all of his sterility. Continue reading

Rajiva Wijesinha’s The Past Is Another Country – Down memory lane with Ismeth Raheem


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The Past is Another Country is a series of interviews with individuals distinguished for their contributions to culture and to society. In addition to discussing their individual contributions, the programmes explore the context in which each of them functioned. The interviews, by Rajiva Wijesinha, cover a range of developments in post-independence Sri Lanka, and present a panoramic view of social change in the latter half of the 20th century.

Ismeth Raheem is an architect who worked with Geoffrey Bawa for many years, and was then responsible for a number of interesting buildings hotels combining traditional Sri Lankan concepts with modern developments. He is also a polymath, who has studied and written about the manner in which Sri Lanka has been seen and presented in pictures and photographs and writings during the colonial period. His knowledge of ancient irrigations systems is also perhaps unrivalled.

Poets and their visions 34: Shakespeare 4 – Power and the shades of love

In addition to the big five, Shakespeare wrote three other powerful tragedies, which are lumped together as the Roman plays. There was in fact another Roman play, Titus Andronicus, but that was early and is bloody and ghoulish and will not repay analysis. The interesting three deal with important historical figures, two of them with those who exercised the most lasting influences of European history, namely Julius and Augustus Caesar. The latter however has only a minor role in Antony and Cleopatra, which deals with his rival for absolute power in what was to become the Roman Empire. Augustus won out, but the play is primarily about love rather than power.

One can indeed see the three Roman tragedies as also looking at what I have suggested are the primary human motives, love and power and identity. The first part of Julius Caesar is about power in itself, and the characterization of Caesar, brief though it is before he is murdered, vividly lays bare the corrupting impact of unbridled power. The rhetoric with which he rejects the plea for mercy that provides the pretext for his assassination illustrates the insensitivity of arrogance that feels no restraining factors. –

I could be well moved, if I were as you; 
If I could pray to move, prayers would move me:
But I am constant as the northern star,
Of whose true-fix’d and resting quality
There is no fellow in the firmament.
The skies are painted with unnumber’d sparks,
They are all fire, and every one doth shine;
But there’s but one in all doth hold his place:
So in the world; ’tis furnish’d well with men,
And men are flesh and blood, and apprehensive;
Yet in the number I do know but one
That unassailable holds on his rank,
Unshaked of motion: and that I am he,
Let me a little show it, even in this,–
That I was constant Cimber should be banish’d,
And constant do remain to keep him so.

And if Caesar deludes himself into believing in his indispensability, equally powerful is Shakespeare’s exposition of a different approach to personal power, Antony’s revengeful determination. Continue reading

Acts of Faith – Chapter 1; Pt 1 – Elementary


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acts-of-faithOur hero will be called Shiva, rousing in the minds of the more sophisticated amongst our readers (yourself, for instance) an image of burnished bronze poised between action and inaction, its myriad arms flung out in several directions, pointing, gesticulating, cajoling. Standing as he does for both Creation and Destruction, the one necessarily involving the other, he will not we trust seem irresponsible or undutiful as a hero in dying at the very beginning of the book. Being Tamil, he will go up in a blaze of glory (and in a helicopter too), thus shedding the brightest possible light upon the people and the processes we need to illuminate. Besides, he will have a sort of successor, symbolically enough called Paul, the executor of his will; though whether this is adequate consolation, whether the substitute will prove suitable, must be left for you to judge.

Then there will be a married couple, but a somewhat unusual couple in that it is generally believed, in this appropriately named Democratic and Socialist Republic of Ceylon where all things are canvassed publicly (albeit in whispers) and nothing private is held sacred (except enterprise), that their marriage was never consummated. That they had no children contributed to this assumption. That her name was Diana did not, so sadly has classical learning declined in this perverse generation. His name is Indra and he was an old friend and also a partner, in a variety of businesses, of Shiva who had accompanied the couple on their honeymoon.

Indra and Diana are Sinhalese, and Buddhists too, though only after a fashion. Ironically, Diana is the more devout, although she is racially hybrid. Her father was a Kandyan Sinhalese, an aristocrat from a little village named after his family (or conceivably vice versa) and nestling in the quiet hills overlooking the Dumbara valley. Her mother Phyllis, settled at the time our novel opens in the village (as she portentously termed it), and playing there the lady of the manor with an aplomb her in-laws had never achieved, was a half-caste, the child of a union between the son of a Ceylonese entrepreneur and the daughter of an English grocer. They had met at Oxford in the twenties and, with a disregard for convention their parents deplored but their generation demanded, had romantically married. Phyllis’ own marriage had been arranged by her father as soon as she approached a suitable age. Continue reading

Poets and their visions 33: Shakespeare 3 – Sound and Fury


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Macbeth lies at the centre of Shakespeare’s vision of human nature, and not only in terms of the age of its protagonist. Macbeth is an over-reacher, and resembles two of Shakespeare’s most celebrated villains, Richard III and Edmund in King Lear, in his determination to make of himself more than fate has assigned to him. Such characters need to be examined as closely as those whose problems arise from the clash between their positive approach to the world and the slings and arrows of, not just outrageous fortune, but the aspirations of others too.

Unlike the vast majority of Shakespearian protagonists, and like Richard III and Edmund, Machbeth treats others, including those that trust him, as simply instruments of his own ambition. But unlike them he is also unquestionably a hero, and is characterized by a host of memorable lines that convey the universality of what he goes through, even though his precipitation of his fate is peculiar to himself. He is also unlike them, in that he does not begin as an outsider, a bastard or a younger brother apparently fated to lurk in the shadows, and challenging the established order to overcome this – like also another distinctive though less prominent Shakespearian villain, Antonio in The Tempest. Nor does he have the excuse of an Iago, disappointed in his desire for promotion.

Macbeth, unlike these, is on the ladder of deserved success. What he does then can be seen as taking to a conclusion the logic of ambition and talent. Initially propelled to this by the three witches, he is hardened in his determination by Lady Macbeth, who seems to epitomize the converse of the innocence of the leading women of the other great tragedies. Continue reading

Rajiva Wijesinha’s The Past Is Another Country – Down memory lane Jean Arasanayagam


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The Past is Another Country is a series of interviews with individuals distinguished for their contributions to culture and to society. In addition to discussing their individual contributions, the programmes explore the context in which each of them functioned. The interviews, by Rajiva Wijesinha, cover a range of developments in post-independence Sri Lanka, and present a panoramic view of social change in the latter half of the 20th century.

Jean Arasanayagam is a poet and writer who has chronicled both her heritage as a member of the Burgher community, and the traumas of racial violence which she suffered from, because of her marriage to a Tamil. A teacher, and lecturer at the Penideniya Teacher Training College, she also describes the clash of cultures experienced through her marriage into a conservative Jaffna family.

Poets and their visions 32: Shakespeare 2 – Questions of identity


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Having looked at the heroines of two of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies, I thought of considering another couple from the great tragedies. I refer here to what is commonly seen as his most remarkable works, the five tragedies that between them span the different ages of man.

The first of these is Romeo and Juliet, which deals with youth. The last, King Lear, is about old age and. if Lear is not quite in the seventh stage that Shakespeare describes in As You Like It, still we are clearly looking at a man nearing the end of his tether. In between we have Hamlet, Macbeth and Othello, and I will look today at the heroines of the first and last of these.

Ophelia and Desdemona are also innocent victims, which I think serves to make clear that Bloom missed the point when he thought Juliet’s lack of responsibility for what happened to her made the play ‘a tragedy of circumstance’, and in effect therefore a contradiction of the Aristotelian view of tragedy. Aristotle was talking about the tragic hero, and the problem with tragic heroes is that their flaws lead to suffering for others as well as themselves. The most obvious victims of the destruction such heroes cause are their loved ones, and in particular lovers and wives, as we see with Juliet and Ophelia and Desdemona (and I suppose daughters as in Lear are an extension of this for the old and already bereaved).

I would however posit a difference between the two ladies in the tragedies of youth and age, and those I will look at today. Though the latter two are innocent, there is a sense in which they fuel the suspicions of their loved ones, which contributes to the psychological neuroses that are the springs of tragedy in either case.

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Rajiva Wijesinha’s The Past Is Another Country – Down memory lane with Anne Ranasinghe



The Past is Another Country is a series of interviews with individuals distinguished for their contributions to culture and to society. In addition to discussing their individual contributions, the programmes explore the context in which each of them functioned. The interviews, by Rajiva Wijesinha, cover a range of developments in post-independence Sri Lanka, and present a panoramic view of social change in the latter half of the 20th century.

Anne Ranasinghe is a German of Jewish origin, whose entire family was killed by the Nazi regime. She escaped by being sent on her own to England as a child. Having then married Prof D A Ranasinghe, she brought up a family in Sri Lanka, where she has lived for over 60 years. A distinguished poet, she has also been an inspiration to young writers through her stewardship for many years of the English Writers Cooperative.

Poets and their visions 31: Shakespeare 1 – Love’s Innocence


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I have long been hesitant in writing about Shakespeare, because it seems almost inconceivable that something new could be said. However, in writing a series about the visions of English poets, to leave Shakespeare out would obviously leave an enormous gap.

In trying to think of a new angle, or at least to approach Shakespeare in a way that would provide some fresh ideas, I was inspired by something Harold Bloom said in Genius, his provocative and illuminating account of inspired writers. Naturally he has Shakespeare at the top of the list, and I suspect no one would disagree – though I cannot but recall here a virtuoso performance by the American critic George Steiner, called ‘A Reading Against Shakespeare’, which he delivered with aplomb at the annual literature seminar that the British Council used to run in Cambridge for many years.

His thesis, or rather one of the most important criticisms he made amongst many, was that there was really no order in the way Shakespeare constructed his world. I still remember the example he used to make this point, his account of the death of Cordelia in King Lear, which he said occurred simply because the message to save her went too late. He contrasted this with the failure to save Antigone in Sophocles’ play of that name, which he noted occurred because Creon the errant protagonist, had to reverse the wrongs he did in order, rather than rescuing Antigone first.

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