I think Crab, my dog, be the sourest-natured dog that lives.
Two Gentlemen of Verona is usually grouped with A Comedy of Errors and The Taming of the Shrew as one of Shakespeare’s early comedies. I am inclined to see it as the earliest, if only because it is by far the least compelling. Whereas Shakespeare is rightly known for the depth of his psychological insight and the realism of his characters, the personages of this play are shallow and implausible creatures.
The two titular gentlemen are anything but. Proteus is a cad, a lout, and finally a monster, while his friend Valentine is a nincompoop. The women who capture their hearts are rather more compelling—especially Silvia, who sees right through Proteus—and yet their attraction to these unscrupulous airheads dims their stature as well. The final scene is the culmination of everything wrong with this play: after banishing his friend and lying through his teeth, Proteus tries to rape Silvia, and is then immediately forgiven by Valentine (note: not Silvia), in an ambiguous line that, at first glance, seems to mean that Valentine is gifting him his paramour Silvia. The scene could almost be funny if it were played as a farce, but the straight version I saw was sickening
The real heroes of this play are Proteus’s servant Launce and Launce’s dog Crab—a mutt who, despite having no lines, is better-realized than any of the protagonists. Now with Launce we have the real Shakespearean magic: a living, breathing, fully human character, immediately relatable and deeply compelling. His hilarious monologues are the jewels of this play, which does not deserve him. Other than this pair, the play is only interesting for prefiguring many of the themes Shakespeare would later explore with greater clarity and depth.
I dreamt last night that Shakespeare’s Ghost
Sat for a civil service post
The English paper for that year
Had several questions on King Lear
Which Shakespeare answered very badly
Because he hadn’t read his Bradley
Analyzing great works of art is always fraught with danger. Whether the critic sets her sights on a portrait, a sonata, or a play, the task is always that of turning poetry into prose. The critic, in other words, must extract content from form—and making content and form inseparable is one of the goals of art. Insofar as art is great, therefore, the critic’s task will prove difficult; and criticism thus reaches its most acute challenge in Shakespeare. His works have eluded minds as powerful as Coleridge and Freud, Goethe and Joyce. The man worthiest to the challenge was not anyone so famous; he was, rather, a retiring Oxford don who published a series of lectures on Shakespeare’s tragedies in 1904.
Bradley’s method has been attacked and dismissed as overly literal, treating Shakespeare’s characters as real people: “How Many Children had Lady Macbeth?” was the derisive title of one critical article, implying that the question (which Bradley never asked) was ludicrous. But I am convinced that Bradley’s method is, on the whole, the right one. For Shakespeare’s tragedies are incomprehensible unless we set our sights on character—the plays’ personalities. If you try the experiment suggested by Bradley himself, you will see this: attempt to narrate the plots of any of these stories without any mention of personality, merely recording the events, and the plot becomes weak and baffling.
The extreme example of this is, of course, Hamlet, whose endless ruminations and procrastinations have been a stumbling block for generations of critics. But the central importance of personality is apparent in all the tragedies. Indeed it must be, as Bradley explains, since a tragedy is tragic only insofar as the events result from a character’s personality. To fall off a building, to catch a deadly disease, to be conscripted into the army—all of these, while remarkably sad, are not tragic in the strict sense because they might happen to anyone. A tragedy may only happen to one person, because it is caused by that person. It does not result from circumstance, accident, or any overwhelming external force. To confirm this, try mentally switching the characters in these tragedies. Othello would have solved Hamlet’s problem in an hour, and Hamlet would have seen right through Iago’s trickery—the plot disappears.
The existence of tragedy, as Bradley also makes clear, seems to suggest a certain sort of universe. The characters must be capable of free action, since the consequences must flow from their personalities. Along with divine determination, the idea of a Christian afterlife is incompatible, too, since if every character ultimately receives their just desserts then the feeling of dreadful finality is lost. For tragedy, as Bradley tells us, always involves the idea of irrecoverable waste—wasted lives, wasted talents, wasted goodness. But the universe in Shakespeare’s plays is not indifferent. Indeed, although good and evil qualities are deeply mixed in all of his most memorable characters, we are never in doubt which is which. And though the hero is inevitably defeated, evil never triumph.
Most difficult to articulate is the odd mixture of inevitability and avoidability that permeates the atmosphere in these tragedies. One is never in doubt that the characters are, in every sense, free and responsible for their destiny; and yet their unhappy fate seems certain. This feeling is caused, I think, by the way that circumstance bleeds into personality. The behavior of Shakespeare’s characters is the reaction of their personality with their environment; and in tragedy this reaction is always fateful. The events correspond exactly with our heroes’ fatal weakness—a weakness which, in any other situation, would not have doomed them. In this sense their personality becomes their prison. They cannot but act otherwise because it is who they are. The final impression is one of cosmic misfortune—by some twist of fate they have been thrown into a predicament which dooms them, and they participate in creating this situation every fateful step of the way.
To fully illustrate this view of tragedy, as springing from a character’s personality, Bradley must analyze Shakespeare’s heroes and villains. And these investigations are absolutely masterful. His dissections of Hamlet and Iago in particular—my two favorite Shakespeare characters, and the two most resistant to analysis—were spectacular. Ever since I first read those plays, I have been beating my head against them in the attempt to make sense of these bottomless personages. The plots of their respective plays are determined by the actions of these two, and yet their motivations are famously difficult to ferret out. What motivates Iago, and what prevents Hamlet from acting? They are mysterious, and yet extremely coherent; one is always sure their actions are of a piece with their nature—and yet their natures are so subtle and complex that they evade understanding. Indeed for some time I was ready to say that the challenge was impossible; but Bradley’s exegesis has convinced me that I was wrong.
This book was, in sum, a revelation: a model of literary criticism that left me thoroughly convinced. And to complete the triumph, Bradley accomplishes his analysis with brevity and charm. There is nothing stifled or academic in his approach; all technical matters are reserved for footnotes and endnotes. He is, rather, a frank and plainspoken man. Nothing could feel more natural than his tone and approach, and no guide could be more friendly and tolerant. However the intellectual winds may blow in the halls of academe, ordinary lovers of Shakespeare will always cherish Bradley, for he performs the office of the critic: to enhance our enjoyment of a work while being true to its spirit.
Talk not to me. I shall go sit and weep
Till I can find occasion of revenge.
Like The Merchant of Venice, whose anti-Semitism makes us squirm, this play presents a sticky problem to modern audiences: was Shakespeare a misogynist? And it must be said that the misogyny present in this play is more difficult to excuse than the prejudice against poor Shylock, since Shakespeare is not clearly in sympathy with the titular shrew, Katherine, as he is with the Venetian merchant. So just as bardolaters have striven to distance Shakespeare from the badness of Titus Andronicus, so have they tried to complicate Shakespeare’s relationship to the explicit misogyny of the play.
First there is the induction, a seemingly extraneous introductory bit that frames the rest of the work, making it a play-within-a-play. Did Shakespeare do this to distance himself from the misogyny? A rather flimsy shield, if you ask me. Another way to excuse the bard has been historical relativism, noting that misogyny was universal in his day and thus excusable. But this explanation isn’t satisfying, either. The play presents Petruchio’s actions as unusual and noteworthy, so much so that the rest of the characters are awestricken by the end. In the context of Shakespeare’s own plays, too, the relationship between Petruchio and Katherine is far from typical.
But perhaps Shakespeare meant this as a negative example, not to emulate but to scorn? Maybe we are supposed to loathe Petruchio and gasp in horror at Katherine’s submissive ending monologue? This does not seem plausible to me; rather it strikes me as a wholly un-Shakespearean reading—with evil unapologetically triumphant, something that never happens even in his tragedies. Somewhat differently, Harold Bloom frees Shakespeare with irony. As he notes, the ending monologue is far too long, and can easily be read as satire on Katherine’s part. Using evidence such as this, Bloom asserts that Katherine is not tamed at all, but rather learns to dominate Petruchio. Yet avoiding her husband’s temper tantrums through unconditional obedience hardly seems like “dominance” to me.
We are thus left, uneasily, with simple misogyny.* And yet the play did not have a terribly unpleasant effect on me. This is because several factors serve to mitigate the main theme of shrew-taming.
For one, however unhealthy their relationship might be by modern standards, Petruchio and Katherine have undeniable chemistry. From the hilarious sexual raillery of the opening courtship to the “Kiss me, Kate” in the streets of Padua, the couple is electrifying to watch. Then there is the obvious ironic comparison with the relationship between Lucentio and Bianca. Bianca, the sweetly submissive girl who every suitor pursues, ends up deceiving her father and making her own choice of marriage; while Katherine, the infamous shrew, compliantly marries the first suitable suitor who comes along with no deception whatsoever. And it is also worth noting that, all the bizarre torture notwithstanding, Katherine does seem better off with Petruchio, who is deeply fond of her, than with her father, who finds her to be a pestilence.
In any case, this play can take its place alongside A Comedy of Errors as a light comedy with finely-drawn characters, full of life and wit—indeed in many ways it is far better. If only it wasn’t about subjugating a wife!
*Given that this play is very unusual in the context of Shakespeare’s oeuvre—full as it is of strong and compelling women—I doubt that it represented Shakespeare’s own views on the subject.
A Comedy of Errors holds a special place in Shakespeare’s oeuvre. It is believed to be his first play; it is one of two Shakespeare plays that observe the “classical unities”; and it is Shakespeare’s shortest play. You can add to this list, Shakespeare’s silliest play, since A Comedy of Errors amply merits this superlative.
To enjoy this work, the viewer must be an expert in suspending disbelief. That there be two sets of twins, bestowed with the same names, who happened to be dressed in the same clothes on the same day—it does not even approach credulity. Added to this is the capstone absurdity that the mother was in the city the whole time, but did not choose to reveal herself to her son for years.
The reward for accepting this improbable premise is hilarity. The humor is low and occasionally crude, but no less brilliant for that. Shakespeare manipulates the simple device of mistaken identity like a virtuoso, squeezing out every bit of drama and every fleeting giggle from this ancient gag. Shakespeare is always witty and amusing, of course, but seldom was he such an expert conjurer of belly-laughs. The scene in which Dromio of Syracuse compares the kitchen-maid to a globe, describing where all the countries can be found on her rotund body, is a pinnacle of comedy.
If this play was, indeed, his first, it certainly augurs Shakespeare’s coming greatness. To make a slapstick farce such as this, the writer need not endow the characters with anything resembling a round personality. But Shakespeare does, and brilliantly. Antipholus of Syracuse is appealing speculative, comparing his search for his long-lost brother to “a drop of water / That in the ocean seeks another drop,” and repeatedly questioning his own identity. His twin brother of Ephesus is decidedly more bourgeois and extroverted; and his wife, Adriana, is touching in her scorned devotion. But of course the real star of the play is Dromio—played by none other than Roger Daltrey in the version I saw—who’s relentless good nature and nonstop wordplay render him irresistibly endearing.
In sum, though certainly not “deep,” this play is both expert and original—a piece of juvenilia that, even by itself, would have secured Shakespeare a modest place in the Western canon, if only as the most perfect example of a staged farce.
This play is famous for being Shakespeare’s dud, not only bad by his lofty standards but by any standard. Even Harold Bloom, who worships Shakespeare this side of idolatry, calls Titus Andronicus “ghastly bad.” The plot is mechanical and clumsy—but admittedly that’s true of many Shakespeare plays. More important, the characters are bland and flat, with the notable exception of Aaron the Moor, who nevertheless is still leagues behind the serviceable villains Iago and Edmund. But the main problem, for audiences and critics, has been the violence. This play is a bloodbath; character are not just killed, they are hacked to bits.
True idolaters of Shakespeare have attempted to defend him from this play. The most obvious defense is that he didn’t write it, or that he collaborated with someone else and only wrote the good bits. Unfortunately the available evidence seems to support the Bard’s authorship. Given the time period, it would hardly be surprising that Shakespeare could write something so violent. Elizabethan audiences were quite fond of bloodshed; and this play was wildly successful in Shakespeare’s lifetime. Harold Bloom takes a subtler approach in Shakespeare’s defense, and asserts that Shakespeare wrote this to free himself from the influence of Christopher Marlowe, by parodying Marlowe’s style to excess. This reading does have its merits. Many passages are nearly impossible to read straight:
Come, brother, take a head,
And in this hand the other will I bear
And, Lavinia, thou shalt be employ’d
Bear thou my hand, sweet wench, between thy teeth.
I agree with Bloom that these lines, the last in particular, cannot be read without a shocked chortle. And Aaron the Moor, devious plotter, is as ridiculous as Dr. Evil in his famous monologue:
Even now I curse the day—and yet, I think, / Few come within the compass of my curse— / Wherein I did not some notorious ill; / As kill a man, or devise his death; / Ravish a maid, or plot a way to do it; / Accuse some innocent, and forswear myself; / Set deadly enmity between two friends; / Make poor men’s cattle break their necks; / Set fire on barns and hay-stacks in the night, / And bid the owners quench them with their tears. / Oft I have digg’d up dead men from their graves, / And set them upright at their friends’ door / Even when their sorrow as almost forgot, / And on their skins, as on the bark of trees, / Have with my knife carved in Roman letters / “Let not your sorrows die, though I am dead.” / Tut, I have done a thousand dreadful things / As willingly as one would kill a fly; / And nothing grieves me more heartily indeed / But that I cannot do ten thousand more.
And yet the play is rarely funny, not even unintentionally funny. Indeed, some lines have a certain gravity and grandeur, though they are often marred by melodrama. Titus’s impassioned sorrow, too, does contain a faint hint of Lear’s magnificently mad grief:
If there were reason for these miseries
Then into limits could I bind my woes
When heaven doth weep, doth not the earth o’erflow?
If the winds rage, doth not the sea wax mad,
Threatening the welkin with his big-swoln face?
And wilt thou have a reason for this coil?
But even the most charitable appraisal must rate Titus Andonicus far behind the other tragedies. Of all Shakespeare’s plays that I know, it is the most marked by its Elizabethan origins, the least able to transcend its epoch. The only indication that this playwright will go on to do bigger and greater things is Aaron the Moor, by far the most “Shakespearean” character in the play, whose tenderness for his newborn son adds an extra dimension to his villainy.
All this being said, I still must say I quite enjoyed Titus Andronicus. This is probably because we are nowadays swinging back around to Elizabethan sensibilities. In a world where Game of Thrones—far more bloody and gruesome than this play—is the most popular show in the world, Titus Andronicus is neither intolerably gory nor overly melodramatic. Indeed, I think if HBO did a production of it, they could make a lot of money.
King Lear, along with Hamlet, forms the pinnacle of Shakespeare’s art. As such, the play seems beyond criticism, or even analysis. The greatest artists set their own standards; they can only be measured against themselves; and as Shakespeare is a giant among giants, his masterpieces are doubly beyond reckoning. Even Harold Bloom, who has something to say about everything, insists that these two plays “baffle commentary”—although it doesn’t stop him from trying. I have difficulty even doing that. Hamlet is among my favorite works of literature, one I have read and seen many times, and yet I cannot think of a single thing to say about it.
Silence is probably the wisest and best course in these situations. But I will stick my neck out a little and try to digest the indigestible, and write a little something about Lear.
This play opens with Lear dividing his kingdom among his daughters. From the first, we are both attracted and repelled by Lear. He is foolish, vain, egotistical, irritable, rash, and imperious. He is clearly not fit to govern a house, much less a kingdom. The transparent flattery of Regan and Goneril, and the equally transparent sincerity of Cordelia, produce the exact opposite response that they should in Lear. Such a poor judge of character, coupled with such a quick temper and a dogmatic devotion to his own impulses—evidenced by his disinheritance of Cordelia and his banishment of Kent—can be neither loved nor respected.
But Lear demands the viewer’s love. He cannot be simply dismissed as a bumbling old man. He is a bumbling old man, yes, but he is also charismatic beyond measure. Every utterance of his is supercharged with passion. He is histrionic, even hysterical; and yet his wounded pride, his kingly dignity, is utterly persuasive. He is every inch a king. Nothing but lifelong power and command could produce a man so totally unable to control his impulses, and so regally disdainful of everything that opposes his will. What is perhaps most lovable about Lear is his directness. Those whom he loves, he loves unstintingly; and unstinting is his pain and disenchantment when his love is not returned. There is nothing dispassionate about Lear; he lacks completely the ability to be calculating and shrewd. And this is both a weakness and a mark of nobility; it makes him vulnerable, but it also makes him loveable.
His foil in this is Edmund. Edmund is pure calculation. He feels nothing for nobody—not for his brother, nor his father, nor his two lovers. It is his total lack of sentiment that allows him to shrewdly manipulate others, much like Iago does. Gloucester, Edgar, Goneril, and Regan all assume that Edmund would not betray them, since he is seemingly tied to them by emotional bonds, and they are all deceived. This description makes Edmund sound psychotic; and yet, for many, he is the most likable character in the play. It is such a relief when he comes on stage. His cool cynicism and dry wit are a necessary reprieve from the ceaseless torrents and whiplashing anger of Lear. Indeed, I couldn’t help thinking that Edmund, so stealthy, so cunning, so self-controlled, would make a far better king than Lear ever did.
Aside from passion and placidity, another theme in this play is sanity and madness, wisdom and folly. The Fool, despite his name, is perhaps the wisest characters in the play, constantly upbraiding Lear for his mistakes. Although dressed like a jester, he lives like a sage, abiding simply and apart from the machinations of power. He bestows his love on the worthiest characters, Lear and Cordelia, and is the loyalest of friends and servants. Edgar, disguised as a madman, is hailed by Lear as a philosopher; and Edgar himself, upon witnessing Lear’s descent into madness, notes that Lear’s ravings have some strange sense: “O matter and impertinency mixed! Reason in madness!” Meanwhile, all the sober plans of Edmund eventually come to naught. Is Shakespeare implying that true wisdom and reason cannot be expressed in ordinary language, but must take the form of poetic ravings or lewd jokes?
Few scenes in literature, if any, are as tragic as when Lear walks out with Cordelia’s corpse in his arms. There is no silver lining in the tragedy. He loses everything—and then dies. Audiences in previous ages thought that this was too harsh, and the play was often performed with a happy ending. We moderns have re-acquired a taste for the bleak. Yet the play is still heartrending. Gloucester in particular attracts my sympathy. Fooled into betraying his loyal son, and betrayed in turn by his disloyal son, blinded for showing kindness to Lear, cast out a broken man intent on ending his own life—it’s a torture to watch. Lear’s story is even darker, for at least Gloucester dies of a happy shock. With Lear we witness a noble and kingly soul, who loves and is loved by many, who is reduced to a babbling fool, who is stripped of everything he owned, even his senses, and who finally dies of heartbreak.
Well, there’s my meager attempt at a review. At least now I can say that I’ve tried.
ANTONY: It is shaped, sir, like itself, and is as broad as it hath breadth. It is just so high as it is, and moves with its own organs. It lives by that which nourisheth it, and, the elements once out of it, it transmigrates.
LEPIDUS: What color is it?
ANTONY: Of its own color too.
This is Shakespeare’s most exiting play. The many and rapid changes of scene function like the shaky, shifting camera angles in a Jason Bourne movie: both accelerating the pace, and showing us a variety of perspectives from which to view the action, all the while keeping some angles carefully hidden from view. We see too much and not enough. The play is exhausting to read or watch, a constant torrent of development and action; and yet, by the end, it is terribly difficult to decide what stance to take towards the principle characters.
Antony cuts a poor figure in this play. Unlike the persuasive and savvy politician of Julius Caesar, here he is a bungler past his prime. In this he reminded me most strongly of Macbeth, another ruler who botches everything he tries to do (Antony even botches his own suicide). The two of them are charismatic, independent, and powerful personalities who, nevertheless, are much too susceptible to suggestion. I should say, rather, that they are too apt to ignore good and to follow bad advice. Antony illustrates this even more than Macbeth: all the play long, he is continually waving away his best counselors to follow the unruly impulses of his heart. He has no ability to put aside pleasure for practicality. It is impossible not to sympathize with him—the play would be tedious and dreary if he were totally unsympathetic—but it was, for me, also impossible to root for him.
Octavius is the perfect foil for this passionate hero. I admit that I like Octavius perhaps more than Shakespeare intended. He is so wonderfully efficient and commanding. In every scene he is issuing orders, rapid-fire, and every one of these orders is calculated and shrewd. He takes in all the essential facts of every situation at a glance, and at once his mind hits upon the correct course of action. He is unbending and unrelenting in his pursuit of his goal. Compared with Antony’s agonizing indecision about whether he wants to be a Roman commander or an Egyptian paramour, this is terribly refreshing. There is no question—in my mind at least—that he should and must be the ruler of Rome, since Antony is so manifestly unfit for the role. And yet, for all his single-minded pursuit of his aims, there is an undercurrent of pity and tenderness—his love of his sister and his outrage at her betrayal, and his tears for Antony’s death—that makes him a complete, sympathetic character.
Cleopatra is the most complex character in this play. Like Antony, she is passionate and mercurial; but unlike Antony, there always seems to be a part of herself that is unconquered by her impulses, a more calculating awareness that allows her to cast a spell over everyone in her presence. Like Iago, she is always acting, playing the part of herself, although to what end is not always clear. Unlike Iago, we never see Cleopatra in private, and have no windows into her solitary consciousness. Also unlike Iago, Cleopatra is constantly overwhelmed by her circumstances; the play she is trying to write never goes according to plan, usually thanks to Octavius. Indeed, the only person impervious to her is Octavius, whose cold, stiff demeanor wards off her dramatic performance. That being said, Cleopatra is the only character whom Octavius can neither understand nor conquer. His silver-tongued messengers to her end up getting manipulated, ignored, or conquered themselves (as in the case of Dolabella).
By chance, I watched this play while making my way through Alexandre Kojève’s interpretation of Hegel, much of which focuses on the famous Master-Slave dialectic. Whatever the applicability of Kojève’s thesis to Hegel’s ideas (that’s for another review), it strikes me that this scheme sheds some light on this play. The Master, in Hegel’s famous chapter, is stuck in a paradoxical situation. He craves the recognition of another self-consciousness, and will risk his life for this recognition; and yet his desire leads him to subjugate the Other to the role of Slave, whose recognition cannot satisfy the Master, since the Slave is not supposed to have any perspective whatever.
Now, it seems that Antony and Cleopatra’s erratic and passionate behavior is shaped by this paradox. The two of them are the masters of the world, surrounded by servants and slaves. They command, and are obeyed. But—unlike Octavius, who is comfortable with the role of impersonal master—neither can be satisfied with this obedience. They are bored by it. The two of them do not wish to be recognized simply as “masters,” but as individuals: as Antony and as Cleopatra. Yet this recognition can only come from an equal, from another master: from each other. This is why, in every scene, they always seem to be performing for each other. They are the only suitable audience for each other’s performance, the only audience that can give the satisfaction of individual recognition.
I think this is why critics have disagreed about whether they truly “love” one another. They seem to be using one another, intimately but self-interestedly, to achieve the full feeling of selfhood. They are like two mirrors reflecting each other’s light. This recognition is so vital that they will risk power, fortune, even life itself, only to sustain it one moment longer. Octavius cannot play this role for either of them. He wishes only to be obeyed; his personality, his private feelings and sympathies, are ruthlessly repressed in order to be the ideal master. Likewise, neither Antony nor Cleopatra can give Octavius what he wants: unconditional obedience. Octavius quite literally wants to reduce them to slavery, dragged in chains in a triumphal procession. This would be a fate worse than death for these two actors.
It is only in the final act, after Antony’s death, that Cleopatra seems to discover that she does not need Antony: she can be an audience to herself, she can recognize her own individuality. This is what makes her performance in Act V so overwhelming. She emerges from the circumstances that constantly thwart her plans, she breaks free of the need to be seen to feel complete. At this moment, the only action which will preserve her autonomy and her individuality is her self-destruction, since Octavius will reduce her to the level of a trophy if she allows herself to live. Her death is not wholly tragic, therefore, but has the pathos of self-transcendence.
Then Octavius strides in, and true to form he begins issuing orders for their burial and mourning. (I wonder what percentage of his lines are direct orders.) This is the play’s emotionally ambiguous end. We miss the passionate intensity of Antony and Cleopatra. Octavius may be compelling in his way, but he is certainly not charismatic. And yet we can’t helping feeling—or I can’t, at least—that the self-destructive, wasteful, and egotistical love affair between these two mortal gods had to end, for the world’s sake if not for theirs.
I’ve fallen far behind in my travel posts, and now I find myself in the embarrassing position of writing about a trip I took over a year ago. It also seems that, no matter how hard I try to be brief, I end up writing more and more. Well, enough prefatory remarks; on to business.
For an American, there is something religious about visiting London for the first time. We have been hearing about the place all our lives. Dry humor, pints of beer, red phone booths, black taxis, fish and chips, bad teeth, good tea, bad weather, good tikka masala, the British Invasion, the British Parliament, the British Empire, Queen Elizabeth, Queen Victoria, Shakespeare, Dickens, the Beatles, Monty Python, Dr. Who, Harry Potter—London is the focal point of all our stereotypes, good and bad, of England and the English.
This is important for us Americans, since England is the only other country whose media we regularly consume. English media is so important for us because of our shared language. Unlike in Spain—where English-language songs often play on the radio (and people sing these songs without understanding the lyrics), and where American shows, overdubbed in Spanish, are extremely popular—in the United States we don’t listen to music in a foreign language if we can help it, and we only watch television that was originally made in English (overdubbing looks silly). This provincial preference for English media limits our options of foreign media mainly to England and Australia, and England has been the clear favorite.
A consequence of this popularity of English media is that Americans have internalized a highly partial picture of the English character. We associate the English with sophistication, elegance, wit, good manner, royalty, and the historical past.
This is almost the polar opposite of the English reputation in Spain. You see, Spain is an excellent travel destination for English holidaymakers—cheap, close, and sunny—and as a result, lots of English tourists come to Spain looking for a good time. A “good time” entails drinking, of course, and thus there are lots of drunken English people stumbling around city centers on any given night. As a result, Spaniards think of the English, not as genteel aristocrats, but as tipplers.
(Parenthetically, the English also have very different alcohol consumption habits than the Spanish. On a Friday or Saturday night, people in Spain begin drinking in earnest after dinner—which means 11 pm at the earliest. They often don’t even leave their apartment to go to bars and clubs until 2 in the morning, and don’t return home until dawn the next day. In London, on the other hand, drinking begins as soon as people leave work, at 5 pm. This is due, in part, to an old law in London that required pubs to close down at 11. So the English stop drinking when the Spanish barely start.
(This difference in schedule is supplemented by a difference in speed and volume. Spaniards are rarely visibly drunk. I have seen very few Spanish people stumbling from alcohol; instead, they focus on maintaining a level of comfortable tipsiness for a long period of time. Compared with Brits, Spaniards sip their drinks, and eat a lot while they drink. English people, by contrast, get properly drunk, and fast, much like many Americans do. As a consequence, Brits can be very loud drinkers—in my experience, at least. This is an especially interesting contrast, I think, since in every other circumstance Brits tend to be mucher more quiet than Spaniards.)
Of course, both the American and the Spanish stereotype is an over-generalization; they are based on very partial exposures to the English character. Partial and false as they may be, however, these stereotypes did succeed in endowing England with a certain contradictory mystique—a place full of witty drunkards, elegant and boisterous, cultured and slovenly? I needed to go see London for myself, to catch a glimpse of the reality behind the reputation.
My problem was that, at the time, I was particularly low on funds. And however distorted all the other stereotypes may be about London, this one is true: London is expensive. Well, it’s expensive if you enjoy eating, sleeping indoors, using transportation, and doing any activity besides walking and sitting outside. This was a few months before the Brexit referendum, and the pound was still strong.
As a result, my short trip to London—barely 48 hours—became a frantic exercise in traveling cheaply. I didn’t buy an oyster card, and I didn’t use the Tube or the buses. I ate “meal deals”—pre-packed sandwiches at Tesco supermarkets, not terribly delicious—instead of paying for dinner in a restaurant. And I focused on visiting museums, which are free in London, instead of other popular sites.
Arrival & First Impressions
As usual, I traveled with Ryanair. My plane arrived in Stansted, the smallest of London’s airports, where I had to fill out a form and wait in a long queue to enter the country. The English, it seems, are almost as paranoid about their borders as we are in the United States. From Stansted, I took the so-called Stansted Express to London’s central Liverpool Station. The ride took about an hour, and was not cheap. This is a typical Ryanair experience: the flight is inexpensive, but uncomfortable; and you land in an unpopular airport far outside the city. I am a loyal customer.
I sat in the train—dazed from lack of sleep, filled with nervous energy, physically miserable but mentally awake—and stared out the window in disbelief. Was I really here? Was this England, the land of dry humor and wet weather? I gazed out at fleeting patches of green countryside as the train sped by, and savored the delightful names of the train stations between Stansted and London. (Of course I can’t remember any of the names now; but as I look on Google maps, I find such gems as Matching Tye, Hartfield Heath, Hastingwood, Theydon Bois.)
English novels—from Austen, to Dickens, to Rowling—have powerfully shaped the American imagination of the past; and thus, by association, English place-names strike many Americans as irresistibly charming. Each name seems to be the title of another great novel, filled with irony and romance, and written with quaint wit. Likewise, the English countryside—a neatly trimmed park, whose rolling hills are covered in a grey mist—is featured in so many films that even the snatches of green I saw out the train window filled me with delight.
These feelings of romance and fantasy are, I suspect, nearly universal for Americans visiting England, and specifically London, for the first time. England is the only foreign country we regularly see in television and movies. This gives the experience of visiting England the effect of stepping into a movie set—everything is familiar, and yet unreal. The same thing happens, I believe, to many who visit New York for the first time. Many people have independently told me that it felt like they were in a movie, since so many landmarks and features were familiar to them from films.
The train arrived, and I got out to go find my Airbnb. I was on edge. The combination of sleep deprivation (the flight was terribly early) with the usual stress of navigating a foreign city (my phone didn’t have service), plus the feeling of unreality that comes from actually being in a place which I’d been hearing about all my life—all this combined to make me edgy and oversensitive. The double-decker red buses, the black taxis, the cars driving on the wrong side of the road, the eccentric road signs (including the delightfully existential “Change Priorities Ahead”), pubs with absurd names (“Ye Old Cheshire Cheese,” on Fleet Street), the red phone booths scattered seemingly at random (apparently, the city had once sold all these phone booths, only to regret the decision and then repurchase as many as they could)—my first impressions of London did contain many of ye quaint olde stereotypes that I expected.
But one thing that, as a New Yorker, always surprises me when I visit a new city is the lack of skyscrapers. Madrid has only four buildings which can reasonably be called skyscrapers, and they’re located in the north of the city, far outside the center. London has its own share of skyscrapers, to be sure. But walking around in London has nothing of that vertiginous feeling that New York produces, the feeling of being crushed by steel and glass, the feeling of constantly craning one’s neck. I had always thought of London as being a huge and imposing place, so this lack of skyscrapers did disconcert me somewhat.
In many other respects, however, London can be easily compared with New York: the bustling streets, the flashy billboards and ever-present advertisements, the endless shopping, the infinite variety of chain restaurants, the ethnic diversity, the smell and the grime. London even has the same phony Buddhist monks trying to scam tourists into giving them money. (You can find a great story about them here; and in case you’re wondering, if someone is aggressively asking you for money, you can safely assume that they’re not a Buddhist monk.)
As I discovered when I got to my Airbnb, one way that London is incompatibly different from both my country and Spain is the style of its outlets. I had to buy a power-adaptor there; and like everything in London, it wasn’t cheap. Be wise and buy one ahead of time.
These were my first impressions, hazy and distorted, as I walked from the station to my Airbnb. Already I was running short of time. It was midday Friday, and my flight home would leave early on Sunday. So I set out to the first place on my list, the National Gallery.
A Note on Cuisine and Language
I should preface my trip to the National Gallery with a mention of a small restaurant, the Breadline, which can be found nearby. I decided to eat there because it had fish and chips—I know it’s silly, but I couldn’t leave London without eating that iconic meal—and because its prices were eminently reasonable. The food was plain and basic, but nonetheless, for me, extremely satisfying. I even returned the next day to try an English breakfast, which I quite liked.
English food has a poor reputation, and I understand why; it is hardly a cuisine designed to have universal appeal. Nevertheless, if those two meals can be trusted to give a fair representation (an open question), I can say that I am a fan. There is something about greasy fried potatoes and fried fish, covered in white vinegar, that just feels right to me. And sausage and beans for breakfast is brilliant.
While I was eating, a young British man came in and said “A small white coffee to take away.” This is an excellent example of the differences between British and American English. This sentence, uttered in New York, would produce only bafflement. You would have to translate it to “A small coffee with milk to go,” if you wanted to be understood. I run into these differences constantly as I teach English. Before coming to Spain, I thought the differences between British and American English were minor and negligible, besides the accent; but I was wrong. Working with British textbooks and materials can be extremely frustrating, since often I don’t know what certain expressions or words mean—which is embarrassing when my students ask. Not only that, but there are a few subtle grammatical differences between the dialects, such as in the use of the perfect tense. But this is a digression of a digression; now to the museum.
The National Gallery
It is immensely satisfying to simply walk into a museum, without fees or lines, like it’s your own home. The experience is even better when the museum is one of the best in the world. The National Gallery is only behind the Louvre, the British Museum, and the Metropolitan in visitors per year; and this is especially impressive considering the museum’s collection is comparatively small, easily viewable in three hours or so. But for those with any sensitivity to art, these three hours will be among the most rewarding of your aesthetic life; for the National Gallery’s collection is remarkable both for its breadth and its excellence. The only museums I’ve visited that compare in the average quality of the paintings on display are the Prado in Madrid and the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. Every room in the gallery contains a masterpiece, often many.
Indeed, there are so many wonderful paintings—paintings I had seen and loved in art history books—that I cannot even hope to mention all of them in this post, much less describe the impression each one made on me. Nevertheless, I can’t resist the temptation to dwell on some of these exquisite works of the human imagination.
The first painting which attracted my attention was the portrait of Erasmus by Hans Holbein the Younger. This is an extraordinary demonstration of the portraitist’s art; instead of a photographic image, capturing the physical surface of the famous writer, we get a glimpse of the writer’s mind. As in any excellent portrait, the inner is made manifest in the outer without compromising the realism of the portrait. His sharply angular face bespeaks cleverness; his gaunt features reveals a life dedicated to the mind and not the body; his half-closed eyes and serene expression show calm intelligence and a wisdom that sees beyond earthly troubles. We also catch a hint of Erasmus’s self-complacent vanity: he looks a little too comfortable in his fine fur robe, and his hands rest a little too easily upon a volume of his own writings. Is there a more convincing portrait of the scholar?
Holbein has an even more famous work on display at the museum: The Ambassadors. This is a portrait of two aristocratic ambassadors (their identity was long debated), in a room which includes an exquisitely-rendered still-life of several objects—a lute, several globes, a psalm-book, and various instruments of navigation. But the most memorable, and bizarre, feature of this painting is the giant anamorphic skull in the center. Anamorphic means that it is purposefully distorted when viewed head-on, and must be seen from a specific perspective to be seen properly. When viewed from the front, the skull is just a strange grey diagonal shape; but when you walk to the painting’s left, the skull comes into focus. I can only imagine the technical virtuosity required of a painter to pull off this trick with such consummate perfection; when seen properly, the skull is finely detailed, beautifully shaded, and anatomically accurate. Holbein painted this tour de force in 1533.
The National Gallery also possesses what is probably the most famous papal portrait in history: Raphael’s portrait of Pope Julius II. Julius was the most important of the high renaissance popes; he is responsible for the beginning of the Vatican museum, Michelangelo’s commission to paint the Sistine Chapel, and Raphael’s commission to paint the Vatican Library. Not only that, Julius originated the idea of tearing down the original St. Peter’s and building a new one. Such a man must have had enormous energy and a deep sensitivity to art. And yet in Raphael’s portrait we see him weary, worn-out, and melancholic. He is gently gripping a handkerchief in one hand and his chair in the other; his eyes are hollow, and the wrinkled skin of his face droops loosely from his skull. He seems to be just feebly holding on to the last chords of life, staring at his own end with resignation. Such terrible realism was entirely new in papal portraiture.
Before going to the National Gallery, I didn’t look up any of the famous pictures that could be found there; so I was surprised and delighted when I found myself face to face with one of my favorite pictures, Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait. I remember first seeing this portrait in Ernst Gombrich’s Story of Art, and being stunned. In the context of its time, 1434, the portrait is startling for its realism and its domestic subject: a marriage contract taking place in a bedroom. To a modern eye, perhaps the portrait no longer seems terribly realistic; the husband, with his pale expressionless face and his oversized clothes, always looks like he belongs in a Tim Burton film to me; but this only adds to its charm. The little toy-sized dog in the foreground—as adorable as ever—and the mirror in the background—showing us the whole scene from reverse in a distorted perspective—add to the painting’s undeniable power.
There are dozens more paintings—of equal importance and beauty—that I could devote an unworthy paragraph to describing; but this would only swell this post to unartistic dimensions. Yet I cannot move on without mentioning the National Gallery’s collection of Italian Renaissance art. This includes Piero del Pollaiolo’s masterpiece, The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian, a landmark in the realistic use of perspective, with the saint enricled by crossbowmen.
Even more important is one of the two versions of Leonardo da Vinci’s Virgin of the Rocks. The other one is in the Louvre, and is usually considered the original; but I think the Gallery’s version, with its deeper shades and more dramatic chiaroscuro, is lovelier. Apart from its beauty, this painting is notable for its setting. Leonardo, as is typical of him, creates a carefully naturalistic background for this traditional Biblical scene. In previous eras, the background of paintings was almost entirely neglected; monochrome gold foil set off the human figures. But in Leonardo’s masterpiece, the background—a cave, which was an unprecedented choice—swallows up its subject. Such careful attention to rendering nature was something new in history.
I also cannot move on without mention of Rembrandt. The National Gallery has several of Rembrandt’s most highly regarded works, including two of his self-portraits. Looking into the eyes of a famous artist, as he stares back at you from a self-portrait, is an unnerving experience; suddenly the gap in space and time that separates your lives vanishes; the artist has transcended death, and even transcended life; his focused gaze, dry pigment on a canvas, will outlast even your own living flesh. On a less dramatic note, the Gallery also has one of Velazquez’s most famous works: The Rockeby Venus, famous for being one of the few female nudes in Spanish art (one other being Goya’s La Maja Desnuda).
I will muster my self-control and mention only two more works.
By common consent, the greatest painter in English history is Joseph Mallord William Turner; and several of his finest works can be seen at the Gallery. Of these, my favorite is Rain, Steam, and Speed—The Great Western Railway. A locomotive emerges from a tempest, a black tube bursting through grey fog. Every line and color is blurred as if seen from an out-of-focus camera. All we can see in the background are hints of blue sky, a bridge, and a lake where some people are rowing in a little boat.
In this paintings, Turner seems to have both anticipated and surpassed the impressionists in rendering momentary flashes of life. The swirl of indistinct color is absolutely hypnotic; yet the painting is not merely pretty, as are many impressionistic paintings, but a convincing symbol of the relationship between human technology and natural power. The train punches through the mist, in a confident gesture of industrial might; and yet the stormy clouds that swirl all around menace the lonely black locomotive. Both the train and its surrounding are impressive, even sublime, but also inhumanly vast and cold; and the two slight figures in the rowboat below reveal our true vulnerability in the face of these forces.
The last painting I’ll mention before forcing myself away—even remembering the Gallery is a pleasure—is Bathers at Asnières, by Georges Seurat. This painting was completed in 1884; but it was not until many years after Seurat’s death that it was recognized as a masterpiece. It depicts several middle-class Parisians relaxing by the Seine on a hot summer day. The technique Seurat used is almost pointillistic in its precise use of strokes and colors, relying mainly on bright horizontal daubs. The combination of statuesque modeling and poses—the bathers’ heavy bodies and horizontal orientation remind me of an Egyptian frieze—with Seurat’s delicate treatment of brushstrokes, makes the painting look crystal-clear from a afar and blurred from up close. The treatment really captures the feeling of heat: how everything can seem perfectly clear in the summer sun, and yet distant objects are blurred.
Complementing this tension between form and vagueness, is an emotional tension between fun and desolation. At first glance the bathers are having a wonderful day. They are at leisure, enjoying the sunshine, the smooth grass, and the cool water. But then you notice how isolated is each one of the figures. They are all in their own world; many seem lost in thought. Their expressions are emotionless; their hunching posture bespeaks weariness. The factory spewing smoke in the background adds another hint of gloom.
To me, the painting is a devastating portrait of the isolation and meaninglessness of contemporary life. We imagine the figures working 9 to 5 jobs in offices during the week, performing mechanical tasks that mean nothing to them. Then they go to their usual restaurant for a bite to eat and then to their apartment to sleep. When with their friends, they drink and talk of trivialities. On a holiday, they come here, and stare into space, unable to articulate to themselves or anyone else the strange sense of emptiness that engulfs them whenever they have a free moment. It is a comfortable world that conceives of nothing beyond wealth and luxury; and its members, when released from their usual routine, can think of nothing to do. Convention dictates that they come here to ‘relax’. The painting is the perfect complement and illustration of Albert Camus’s The Stranger: it is a painting of a world of strangers, to one another and to themselves.
The next day, I headed to one of the other great museums in London: the British Museum. Originally I planned to include my account of that great institution in this post; but I ended up writing so much that I decided that the British Museum deserved its own separate essay, which you can find here.
Brief Snatches of London Life
When I wasn’t visiting museums, I had a few spare hours to wander around the city. This allowed me to glimpse, all too briefly, most of the major sights in London—the places that must be given a mention and a respectful nod in any post about that old city.
The first landmark I insisted on seeing was Big Ben. A trip to London without seeing that venerable clocktower would be like a trip to Pisa without its leaning campanile. I was so ignorant when I visited London (and remain, despite strenuous efforts) that I didn’t even know that Big Ben was attached to the British parliament building, the Palace of Westminster. It was a delightful surprise to find these two landmarks joined together.
Although it looks gothic, the palace is of fairly recent construction. The old Westminster palace burned down in 1834 (Turner witnesses the fire, and painted several pictures of it). The new building was designed by Charles Barry, who used a Gothic revival style in his plan. I doubt there is any parliament buildings in the world so elegant, so imposing, and so charming. Few experiences in London, if any, can do a better job of creating that Hollywood sensation of being in a movie than standing on the Westminster bridge, seeing that palace and the clocktower, and hearing the ringing bells of Big Ben chime out the hour.
From there I walked away from the bridge, pausing to examine the statue of Winston Churchill (covered in pigeon droppings) in the nearby plaza, and went to Westminster Abbey. In my very limited experience, this is easily the most beautiful church building in London. I can’t say much about it, because I didn’t go inside—it was closed by the time I arrived, and in any case I didn’t want to pay the steep entry fee—but I can say that its façade is exquisite, especially the north entrance. Funnily enough, Westminster Abbey is not an abbey—at least, not anymore. Originally it was an abbey of the Benedictine monks, but after the Protestant Reformation, and after a brief stint as a cathedral, the abbey was designated a church. For the last 1,000 years it has been the site of coronations and royal weddings.
The walk from Westminster Abbey to Buckingham Palace is about 15 minutes—slightly longer if, like me, you walk through St. James’s Park. I highly recommend this, since the park is absolutely lovely.
Architecturally, Buckingham Palace isn’t much to look at; it presents itself as a cheerless, square, grey block. The building was not originally designed as a royal residence; it only became the seat of the monarchy in 1837, during the reign of Queen Victoria. The palace takes its name from the Duke of Buckingham, who originally had it built. It sits at the end of the Mall—a major road often used for processions—in a roundabout in which stands the golden Victoria Memorial, which commemorates that famous queen.
Even so, neither the monument nor the palace would attract a great deal of attention, I suspect, were it not for the Queen’s Guard. Equipping guards with antique weapons and dressing them in bright red outfits with fluffy tall hats seems to be one of those conspicuously impractical things that wealthy and powerful people do to showcase their wealth and power. Your average rich entrepreneur or politician could not afford to keep a corps of totally inefficient guards performing ceremonial movements all day (which are, naturally, supplemented by other guards using modern weapons, keeping careful watch, and wearing less conspicuous clothes). Here is an incident that demonstrates the guards’ mainly ceremonial role: in 1982 a man managed to evade the palace guard and make his way to the Queen’s bedroom, where he was apprehended by the city police.
I spent some time watching the guards march back and forth, their limbs as stiff as a wooden nutcracker. Purely as athletic performers, the soldiers are undeniably impressive: the timing, the coordination, the posture, the endurance—it must require excellent physical condition and serious training to keep up the routine, especially considering that they wear those clothes even in hot weather. The guards now mainly function as a tourist attraction and an amusing symbol of British culture; but to be fair, the Queen’s Guard aren’t the only soldiers to wear funny clothes (think of the Swiss Guard in the Vatican) or to engage in elaborate ceremony purely for show (think of the tomb of the unknown soldier in Washington D.C.).
By the time I left the British Museum the next day, I only had about 6 hours left before I’d have to go to sleep and say goodbye to London. The best way to get the most out of this time, I figured, was a free walking tour. The guide was excellent, and the tour just what I wanted. Unfortunately I don’t remember the name of the company or of our guide; he introduced himself as the only American tour guide in London—so he shouldn’t be too hard to find. (But apparently this isn’t true; a Google search reveals an American woman named Amber who also gives tours.)
The tour focused on the City of London. You may not know—I certainly didn’t—that the “City of London” refers to the original part of the metropolis, founded by the Romans way back when. This original City of London is now only a tiny fraction of the greater metropolitan area; indeed, it is quite a small place, having an area of only one square mile. This city is far older than England; it has enjoyed special privileges (or, to use the phrase of the Magna Carta, “ancient liberties”) since the Norman Conquest; and even now it retains the privilege to create many of its own regulations, independent of the greater metropolitan area or of England herself. The city has laxer building codes, which explains why so many of London’s skyscrapers are found there, and also looser financial regulations, which explains why it remains the center of London’s economic life. The City of London is home to the Bank of London, the London Stock Exchange, and Lloyd’s of London (the insurance market).
The tour began at Temple Station. Our guide took us along the river and then down Fleet Street, giving us bits of details about London’s past and present. We walked by Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, one of the oldest and best known pubs in London, famous both for its silly name and its dark, windowless interior; and this prompted our guide to embark on a long, impassioned explanation of London pub culture. Though an American, he was clearly a convert to the pub way of life; he had strong opinions about what made a pub good or bad; and he had pub recommendations for nearly any area of the city. (I was so inspired that, after the tour, I went into a pub to get a drink; but the beer was so expensive and so mediocre that my disappointment was even more bitter than the beer.)
Soon we reached St. Paul’s Cathedral. The tour didn’t pause for us to go inside; and, in any case, the entrance fee is formidable enough to discourage penurious travelers like me. Among other things, St. Paul’s is famous for having one of the tallest domes in the world. But the present St. Paul’s replaced an older, even taller cathedral (well, it was taller before its spire was destroyed by lightning), which was badly damaged in the Great Fire of London in 1666. The present building was designed by Sir Christopher Wren, and completed in his lifetime. Wren was, if not the greatest, at least the most prolific architect in England’s history. He designed and oversaw the construction of no less than 52 churches after the Great Fire. The architect himself is buried in the crypt of the cathedral, in a modest grave that says “Reader, if you seek his monument—look around you.”
From there we moved on to the Monument to the Great Fire, also designed by, you guessed it, Sir Christopher Wren. As our guide pointed out, the monument—a tall doric column that originally rose far above its surroundings—is now hemmed in by neighboring buildings and dwarfed by modern architecture. The guide used this as an example of the tendency of Londoners to be more interested in the future than the past.
To emphasize this point, he directed our attention to the skyscraper at 20 Fenchurch Street, a bizarre, top-heavy construction, completed in 2014, whose shape quickly earned it the nickname ‘The Walkie Talkie’. This building won—and earned—an award for ugliness. (It was also discovered that the building’s concave shape focused the sun’s rays strongly enough to damage cars, ignite doormats, and fry eggs; a screen has since been installed to prevent this from happening.) But the Walkie Talkie is only one of the many skyscrapers that have sprung up in the City of London in recent memory, despite concerns that these tall monstrosities will dwarf and obstruct historic buildings.
From the cathedral, we went down towards the river and ended up under London Bridge. Many people, including me, assume from the nursery rhyme that London Bridge is a tourist attraction; indeed, the justly famous Tower Bridge, which spans the Thames nearby (see below), is often mistakenly called the London Bridge. Sad to say, the current London Bridge is a brutalist piece of concrete and steel, a minimalistic slab of stone that stretches across the Thames, without charm, beauty, or really any distinguishing quality.
The nursery rhyme dates from a time when a different London Bridge spanned the Thames. The ‘Old’ London Bridge, built in 1209 and demolished in 1831, rested on stone arches and was covered in wooden buildings (which proved to be a fire hazard). It was famous for being the site where the severed heads of those executed for treason, dipped in tar and impaled on pikes, were displayed for passersby to take heed. William Wallace’s head was the first to play this role.
In 1831, the ‘New’ London Bridge was built to replace the crumbling medieval construction; this bridge also rested on arches, but it was taller and so allowed bigger ships to pass underneath. In the 1960s it was discovered that London Bridge was falling down (sinking into the riverbed) and had to be replaced. In true English entrepreneurial spirit, the bridge was sold; an American oil tycoon, Robert McCulloch, bought the bridge, disassembled it, shipped it to the United States, and then reassembled it in Lake Havasu City, Arizona—a little piece of English history in the American south. The current behemoth was finished in 1972.
The tour came to an end front of the Tower of London. Once again, I didn’t go inside that old castle—I am really exposing myself as a pathetic traveler, I know—but contented myself with walking around the perimeter. From the outside, the Tower of London doesn’t seem to merit the name “tower”; the White Tower, the central citadel which sits at the center of the castle complex, is less than 100 feet tall—almost invisible in the context of London. The castle is quite venerable; it was first constructed by the Normans in the 11th century, and was expanded in the preceding two centuries. At present the Tower of London is a large complex with two concentric layers of stone walls surrounding the central keep, and some additional buildings such as a chapel and a barracks. The outer wall is surrounded by a moat, now left dry. Besides the castle itself, visitors can see several historical objects on display, such as Henry VIII’s armor and—most notably—the Crown Jewels of England.
The Tower of London has played an important and often a nefarious role in English history. For a long time it served as the British version of the Bastille, as a prison for traitors and other political pests. Anne Boleyn, unfortunate wife of Henry VIII, is the most famous prisoner ever to be held and executed in the tower; legend has it that her ghost still travels through the old castle, her severed head under her arm. But as I stood there looking at that stone pile, I thought only of Thomas More, the British intellectual who dreamed of a utopia with freedom of religion, and who was imprisoned in the tower and then executed for being true to his Catholic faith (also by Henry VIII). More’s head was eventually covered in tar and displayed on a pike on the old London Bridge.
The tour guide ended with a short speech, which I will try to reproduce here:
“In this tour, we’ve seen many different types of power. We have the political and military power of the Tower of London, the religious power of St. Paul’s cathedral and the Church of England, and the economic power of the London Stock Exchange. And this, ultimately, is what the City of London has always been about: the use of power to control its own destiny. It’s a place oriented towards the future, constantly striving to master whatever is the next form of social power in order to maintain its dominance in the world’s affairs.”
And this strikes me as perfectly true.
From the Tower of London I made a quick walk to the nearby Tower Bridge. This is the iconic bridge often mistakenly called the London Bridge. It’s a pretty sight, with two neo-Gothic towers supporting two platforms, one higher and one lower. Built in the 1890s, its design, by Sir Joseph Bazalgette, was innovative: a combined suspension bridge and drawbridge. The idea (according to the tour guide) was to allow pedestrians to keep using the bridge even when the drawbridge was drawn up to allow ships to pass.
Pedestrians soon learned, however, that walking up the stairs in one of the towers, crossing the upper platform, and then walking down the stairs in the other platform, took even more time than just waiting for the drawbridge to close again. Accordingly, pedestrians hardly ever used the upper platform, which came to be frequented mainly by criminals and prostitutes; it was closed in 1910. Nowadays, you need to pay an entrance fee to go up to the upper walkway. This is just another example of a brilliant idea that doesn’t take into account basic human realities: an innovative plan for a bridge that ignores the time and effort needed to climb several flights of stairs. It is certainly pretty, though.
As my last stop I made my way to Shoreditch, a neighborhood which had been recommended to me by a Londoner in my Spanish class. Shoreditch is London’s Williamsburg: a previously working class neighborhood that has been gentrified, and is now home to trendy restaurants and technology companies. The area even looks like Williamsburg, with narrower streets and older, shorter buildings, full of colorful shops and cafes. The population, too, is almost indistinguishable from its New York counterpart: men with large mustaches, plaid shirts, and suspenders; women with half their heads shaven, nose rings, and small, tasteful tattoos—in a word, hipsters. I felt right at home. The gentrification is so extreme as to be beyond parody; there is, for example, a cafe, the Cereal Killer Cafe, that serves only breakfast cereal.
To illustrate my own complicity in the world of hipsterdom, I went to a cafe famous for its rainbow-colored bagels, the Brick Lane Beigel Bake. This little cafe is open 24 hours a day, it is cheap, and it is excellent. I didn’t order a rainbow bagel, but instead a ‘hot salt beef’ on a roll. The beef comes with pickles and strong, superb mustard. I had two (for a very reasonable price) and I was stuffed. Another positive mark for English cuisine.
My time was up. My flight was leaving at seven the following morning, which meant I had to wake up at four to give myself enough time to walk to the train station and take the train to the airport.
All told, I spent less than 48 hours in London. I was constantly tired, hungry, and physically exhausted. I ate little, I slept less, and I walked almost constantly—more than 10 hours each day. I spent as little money as I could, and still the trip was expensive. I learned as much as I could, but left the vast majority of the city unseen and unknown. The trip was a physical ordeal and a financial hardship. But in return for all this trouble, I encountered, however briefly, one of the great cities of the world.
ROMEO: Peace, peace, Mercutio, peace!
Thou talk’st of nothing.
MERCUTIO: True, I talk of dreams,
Which are the children of an idle brain,
Begot of nothing but vain fantasy,
Which is as thin of substance as the air
And more inconstant than the wind.
My memories from my high school literature classes are largely a blank. Books held no interest for me. I spent one year skipping my classes completely. And when I did drag myself to class, I almost never did the reading. A quick look through the Cliffnotes the night before was usually enough to pass the exam—which inevitably consisted of a bunch of multiple-choice questions about plot details, and short-answer questions of ‘analysis’ that could easily be fudged by some clever-sounding nonsense.
We occasionally ‘acted-out’ plays in class. This was normally a cue to space-out while my classmates labored through Shakespeare’s language, and hope the teacher didn’t call on me. I liked to day-dream about videogames and action movies. Shakespeare, I thought, was stuffy boring nonsense, hopelessly cliché and old-fashioned. But despite my apathy, one moment of Romeo and Juliet did manage to worm its way into my memory. This was Mercutio’s enormous, phantasmagoric monologue about Queen Mab:
She is the fairies midwife, and she comes / In shape no bigger than an agate stone / On the forefinger of an alderman, / Drawn with a team of little atomi / Over men’s noses as they lie asleep. / Her chariot is an empty hazelnut made by the joiner squirrel or old grub, / Time out o’ mind the faries’ coachmakers; / Her wagon-spokes made of long spinners’ legs; / The cover of the wings of grasshoppers, / Her traces of the smallest spider web, / Her collars of the moonshine’s watery beams, / Her whip of cricket’s bone, her lash of film, / Her waggoner, a small grey-coated gnat, / Not half so big as a round little worm / Prick’d from the lazy finger of a maid; / And in this state she gallops night by night / Through lovers’ brains, and then they dream of love…
The speech goes on much further, describing how the Queen “gallops ov’e a courtiers’ noses” and “driveth o’er a soldier’s neck,” filling their dreams with vain fantasies. I am sure that I didn’t understand even half of it; what is an agate stone, an alderman, or an atomi? But the speech is so exuberant, and interrupted the play’s action so pointlessly (or so it seemed), that I couldn’t help being interested. Yes, I was actually interested in Shakespeare for a moment, and found myself wondering what this fairy queen, so decorously bedecked, had to do with this ridiculous story of love.
I admit that, even now, I find it hard to love this play. It has has become such a ubiquitous cultural reference-point that reading it is rather like seeing the Mona Lisa in person—seeing an icon that is already so relentlessly seen that it is almost impossible to unsee and see afresh. But this is hardly the play’s fault, or Shakespeare’s. Indeed, it is a mark of supreme merit that we can hardly speak of the passions of romantic love without these two lovers coming to mind; and, though we laugh at these outbursts of adolescent passion in our more cynical moments, there is hardly anything more simple and sublime in love poetry than Juliet’s declaration:
My bounty is as boundless as the sea,
My love as deep: The more I give to thee
The more I have, for both are infinite.
A few months ago, I was given a bilingual copy of this book, in English and Italian, from a thoughtful friend who traveled to Verona. I myself was lucky enough to have gone to Verona when I was back in high school, the very same year that I was skipping all my English classes.
I remember getting off the bus, still jetlagged and dazed, but feeling elated and happy in sunny winter’s day. I looked at the stony ruin of the Verona Arena and thought of gladiators wielding tridents and swords. Back then I even knew some Italian—long since forgotten, from lack of both interest and practice—which I was learning in school. So it seems a fitting testament to my misspent youth to quote from this most romantic of plays in that most romantic of languages:
Oh, Romeo, Romeo, perché sei tu Romeo?
Rinnega tuo padre e rifiuta il tuo nome,
o, se non vuoi, giurami solo amore,
e non saró piú una Capuleti.
The good writer seems to be writing about himself, but has his eye always on that thread of the universe which runs through himself, and all things.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson
While there have been many great writers who never wrote of themselves—Shakespeare comes to mind, of whom we know very little—it is certainly true that Emerson wrote reams about his cosmic self. His greatest book is his diary, an exploration of self that rivals Montaigne’s essays in depth and eloquence.
Writing about oneself, even modestly—and Emerson was not modest—inevitably involves self-mythologization. Emerson was the Homer of himself. He looked ever inward, and in his soul he found deities more alluring than Athena and battles more violent than the Trojan War. From this tumultuous inner life he created for himself a persona, a literary character, who both incorporated and transcended Emerson the man.
Everyone does this, to a certain extent. Identity is slippery, and the self is a vanishing figment of thought. As Hume pointed out, we are really just a floating observer embroiled in bundles of sensations. Each moment we become a new person.
Our past only exists in our memory, which is just an internal rumor that we choose to believe. And our feeble sense of history, itself always in flux, is the only thing that ties together the confused mass of colors, sounds, and textures, the swirling indistinct thoughts, the shadowy images and daydreams, that make up our mental life.
Your identity, then, is more like the water flowing down a stream than anything solid. The self is a process.
This groundlessness, this ceaseless change, makes people uncomfortable. So much of our lives consists of building solid foundations for our insubstantial selves. Culture can be thought of as a response to this existential uncertainty; we constantly try to banish the ambiguity of identity by giving ourselves social roles, roles that tell us who were are in relation to everyone else, and who everyone else is in relation to us.
Each moment of the day carries its own ritual performance with its concomitant roles. In trains we become passengers, in cars we become commuters on our way to work, at work we become a job title, and at home we become a husband or wife.
The ritual of marriage, for example, is performed to impose an identity on you. But in order for this imposed identity to persist, the community must, in a million big ways and small, act out this new social role. Being married is a habit: a habit of acting, of thinking about yourself, and a habitual way of treating you that friends, family, acquaintances, and even the federal government pick up.
A common way of reinforcing one’s identity is to attach it to something apparently solid, objective, and permanent. Thus people learn to equate their self-esteem with success, love, money, with their marriage or their job title. But these strategies can backfire. Marriages fail and jobs end, leaving people feeling lost. And if you identify your worth with your fame, skill, or with the size of your wallet, you doom yourself to perpetual envy, since there will always be those above you.
People also position themselves demographically; they identify themselves with their age, nationality, ethnicity, race, or gender. These strategies have the merit of at least pointing to something substantial. I know, for example, that my behavior is influenced by the fact that I am an American; and by being cognizant this identity, I understand certain behaviors of mine.
Nevertheless this too can be taken too far, specifically when people reduce themselves to members of a group, and attribute all their behaviors to the groups to which they belong. Your demographic identity influences your behavior, by shaping the pattern of your actions and thoughts, but it does not comprise your identity, since identity can never be pinned down.
Those with strong wills and forceful personalities, like Emerson, wrestle with this problem somewhat differently: they create a personal mythology. This is a process by which they select moments from their past, and omit others, and by this selection create for themselves a story with a definite arc.
At the end of this arc is their persona, which is a kind of personal role, a character they invented themselves rather than adopted from society, formed by exaggerating certain qualities and downplaying others. This persona, unlike their actual, shifting identity, is stable and fixed; and by mentally identifying with this persona of theirs, they manage to push aside, for a time, the groundlessness of self.
I can’t help admiring these self-mythologizers, these artists of the literary self, the Emersons, Montaignes, and Nietzsches, who put themselves together through force of will. This procedure does carry with it some dangers, however, the most notable being the risk that you may outgrow or tire of your persona.
I can only speak from my own experience. Many times in my life I have acted out a sort of character in social situations, either from shyness of showing my real self, or an attempt to impress others; and although this strategy worked for a time, it ended by being highly unsatisfying.
In effect I trained those around me to respond to me in certain ways, to consider me in a certain light, and when I got tired of this character I was left with friends who didn’t know me. They knew a part of me, to be sure, since any character I can invent for myself will always have some of my qualities, but they didn’t know the full range of my traits.
Emerson was well aware of this danger, which is why he made it a point to be changeful and inconsistent. As he repeatedly said, he had no system. He considered himself an experimenter who played continually with new ideas. This itself was a sort of persona—the mercurial prophet, the spontaneous me—but it gave him the flexibility to expand and shift.
To me, there is nothing wrong with mythologizing yourself. The important thing is to recognize that your persona is not your self, and not to let a fixed conception of your own character constrain your actions. A personality is nothing but a pattern of behavior, and this pattern only exists in retrospect. You as you exist now are a bubble of awareness floating down a stream of sensation, a bubble that forms and reforms every passing moment.