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When in crisis, think Shakespeare

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David Tennant in the RSC's Love's Labour's Lost

These days my only question when I unfold the Wall Street Journal is how desperately big the headline will be. Today on page one the economic implosion was called a rout, a sprawling crisis and a slow-motion crash with the financial markets ailing. At the very least we have a run on metaphors.

It seems a fantasy, a view supported by someone who, unlike me, does know something about the economy. So it's time for Shakespeare, whose fantasies feel real in the way reality does not.

David Tennant, the famous Dr Who, has leaped from his role as the prince of Denmark - a lonely and symbolic figure of those times when we have to make difficult decisions and we'd so prefer not to - into the role of Berowne in Love's Labour's Lost.

Charles Spencer thinks that Tennant is dazzling, but debunks Shakespeare's play as the work of a young man. Spencer's shorthand misses half the action as he neglects to mention that "the cynical, jesting Berowne, who takes a vow with the King of Navarre and his chums to forswear the company of women" does so in order to study. In light of all the fantastically intelligent financiers and regulators staggering in the dark, Berowne asks a pertinent question -

BEROWNE
What is the end of study? Let me know.

KING
Why, that to know which else we should not know.

BEROWNE
Things hid and barr'd, you mean, from common sense?

KING
Ay, that is study's god-like recompense.

BEROWNE
Come on, then; I will swear to study so,
To know the thing I am forbid to know,
As thus: to study where I well may dine,
When I to feast expressly am forbid;
Or study where to meet some mistress fine,
When mistresses from common sense are hid;
Or, having sworn too hard-a-keeping oath,
Study to break it, and not break my troth.
If study's gain be thus, and this be so,
Study knows that which yet it doth not know.
Swear me to this, and I will ne'er say no. . .

In the play's last scene the men are forsworn, and hearing Berowne ruefully describe himself, I can't help but thinking of all those financial masterminds -

Figures pedantical; these summer-flies have blown me full of maggot ostentation
. . .Thus pour the stars down plagues for perjury.
Can any face of brass hold longer out?

"O Lord, sir!" says Costard, "It were pity you should get your living by reckoning, sir."

Too close to the mark! Shakespeare makes me weep when I hope to laugh.

Forsworn, perjured and impeached, the men nevertheless seek the troths of their ladies. Shakespeare, an everyman to my current emotions, gives the women a breathtaking response. Here is one of them -

KING
Now, at the latest minute of the hour,

Grant us your loves.

PRINCESS
A time methinks, too short
To make a world-without-end bargain in.
No, no, my lord, your Grace is perjur'd much,
Full of dear guiltiness; and therefore this:
If for my love - as there is no such cause, -
You will do aught, this shall you do for me:
Your oath I will not trust; but go with speed
To some forlorn and naked hermitage,
Remote from all the pleasures of the world;

There stay until the twelve celestial signs
Have brought about the annual reckoning.
if this austere insociable life
Change not your offer made in heat of blood,
If frosts and fasts, hard lodging and thin weeds,
Nip not the gaudy blossoms of your love,
But that it bear this trial, and last love,
Then at the expiration of the year,
Come, challenge me, challenge me. . .

Reading about the Great Obama and the faltering McCain I'd like a year's hiatus from the election with every politician in a forlorn and naked hermitage, learning to be true, before asking me to vote.

As that, alas, is not possible, I may be spending quite a bit of time with Shakespeare.

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