Dido, the Guise, and Lear



I recently read the two of Christopher Marlowe’s plays I had left to read, and I also reread King Lear.

I don’t have much to report about Dido Queen of Carthage.  I’m not a great fan of The Aeneid, so it’s probably my problem, not Marlowe’s.  I was interested by the appearance of phrases from better known plays, such as “winter’s tale”, “hurly-burly”, and most notably, Marlowe’s own, “make me immortal with a kiss”.

The Massacre at Paris was a bit more rewarding.  The Jew of Malta begins with a great monologue on Machiavelli:

Albeit the world think Machevill is dead,
Yet was his soul but flown beyond the Alps,
And now the Guise is dead, is come from France,
To view this land, and frolic with his friends…  

Well this play is about that same Duke of Guise.  With the pretext of defending the church, he murders his political enemies, flouts the will of the king, and sets in motion the famous St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre.  As a card player I liked the lines where the Guise tells himself

Since thou hast all the cards within thy hands,
To shuffle or to cut, take this as surest thing,
That, right or wrong, thou deal thyself a king.

Having read this I can better imagine the poisonous political and religious atmosphere of the times, and appreciate Marlowe’s involvement with it, an involvement that may have cost him his life.

Lear‘s great reputation and my having read it in school are two reasons why I felt particularly guilty for never really having a handle on it.  This rereading helped, but I’m sure I have a long way to go.  This time around it struck me that Shakespeare deliberately conceals a lot of what might lead us to blame the elder sisters more, or even just help us understand the war that takes place mostly off stage. The beginnings of division between the sisters and the threat to Lear’s life are alluded to but never really made concrete.  Perhaps he leaves the politics out of it in order to focus on individuals’ cruelty, which would explain partly why this is such a grueling and mysterious play.

Orkneyinga Saga

I’ve been reading another Norse saga this past month: Orkneyinga Saga.  I have a particular interest in it because one of my ancestors came from the Orkneys.

Like Eyrbyggja Saga, the Orkney saga is extremely terse and involved, and it can get hard to follow.  It’s remarkable that despite this, it hardly ever risks becoming a mere dry chronicle.  Like the other saga writers, the thirteenth century Icelander who wrote it was a great storyteller with a sensibility that seems strikingly modern.  I can’t speculate on that effect any further without having read the great sagas like Egil or Njal.

I’d known that the islands had been under Norse control for a long time before becoming part of Scotland; reading this has given me a better idea of how this might have worked.  Long before the Norman conquest of England in 1066, which has a peripheral appearance in this saga, a Norwegian king set out to punish the vikings of Norway.  When he was finished, he left the Earldom of Orkney to one of his followers.

The Norse seem to have had a fairly vague rules of succession.  Two sons might share the earldom, or a more distant relative would have his claim supported by the King of Norway.  Generally Norway was recognized as supreme, but the King of the Scots was involved from the beginning, as the Norse kept pushing into Caithness and beyond.

The best surprise in Orkneyinga Saga might be Earl Rognvald’s journey to the Holy Land.  Coming late in the book when the feuding and scheming run the risk of getting monotonous, it appears to be a stroke of genius on the part of the author.  Rognvald and his companions compete to outfit the best ships, stop in Galicia to challenge a mysterious warlord, and Rognvald even finds a romantic interest in the Princess of Narbonne.  For the remainder of the journey he composes poetry for her.  When they come upon a dromond, a great trading ship which at first they mistake for an island, the holy pilgrim Rognvald dedicates their bloody attack to his lady.

So far the sagas haven’t let me down.  Orkneyinga Saga has it’s own character, but shares with the others the great combination of strangeness and realism.  I’m looking forward to posting on more of them.