Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Richard III - Catabasis

Cibberians (?),

Ernst provided the clue I had been searching for: the poetic and rhetorical pyrotechnics in Richard III influenced by the possibility of over-reaching Kit Marlowe. I've been threatening to comment on Clarence's "miserable night/ So full of fearful dreams" (Act I, scene iv). Next time through the canon (heh, heh) we might take on Richard III as tragedy, as Ernst notes there is a touch of comedy, the obstacle of history, and if Richard is detached from chronicle – Tudor or otherwise – a true tragedy.

But the element I've been waiting to introduce is from epic, the catabasis (sometimes, katabasis), the descent into the underworld made by the epic hero. Odysseus, protected by Tireseus, crosses into the realm of Hades, where he talks to his late mother and, in a remarkable exchange, summons the spirit of Achilles who tells Odysseus he would rather be a nameless swain following a plow than a renowned, and dead, warrior. Aeneas also goes into the underworld because, well, because Odysseus does. Even poor Gulliver descends in Book Three of Gulliver's Travels, where the poor middle-class, imagination-challenged Gulliver asks to see Alexander the Great on parade reviewing the panoply of his troops. Most to the point in 1592-3 is Marlowe's Dr. Faustus (c. 1588), in which Faustus bargains with Mephistophiles to descend into the underworld to achieve complete intellectual power. There, you remember, he summons the spirit of the most perfect beauty of all time, Helen of Troy, and exclaims, "Is this the face that launched a thousand ships/ And burned the topless towers of Ilium." (In the 19th century, during the scientific push to create measurements for all nature – the lumen, the volt, the erg, the picocurie – this line was the basis for the unit of measurement for female beauty; the millahelen, sufficient beauty to launch one ship.)

Clarence, in the Tower, has a phantasmagorical vision, a projection of poetry into the realm of subconscious twilight, "a kind of poetry, which the rest of the play, ferociously concentrated upon brutality and lust for power, can hardly parallel," comments Derek Traversi.

O Lord, methought what pain it was to drown!
What dreadful noise of waters in my ears!
What sights of ugly death within my eyes!
Methoughts I saw a thousand fearful wracks;
A thousand men that fishes gnaw'd upon
Wedges of gold, great anchors, heaps of pearl,
Inestimable stones, unvalued jewels,
All scatt'red in the bottom of the sea. (I.iv,21-8)

T.S. Eliot claims this is the best of Seneca, absorbed into English, "treating shadows like solid things." I'd say supernatural, if it did not evoke sci-fi. I can think only of Volpone here, and then the treasures beyond value are an inducement in the seduction of Celia. Clarence passes the melancholy flood with the sour ferryman, Charon, into the kingdom of perpetual night, where he is greeted by the renowned Warwick, then Prince Edward, slain at Tewksbury. Admittedly, this is not Achilles nor Helen nor even Alexander. But it is profound [pun intended] as little else in the play is, much richer, I think, than the vision or dreams of the revenging dead which visit Richard at Bosworth field. Clarence's dream is tragically ironic.

That's it for me on Richard III, lest one of you hint I am anal retentive. Obsessive/ compulsive, yes, but…


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