Thursday, 17 August 2017

Religion in Marlowe’s 'Jew of Malta'

Whilst Marlowe was writing, anti-Semitism was rife across the entirety of Europe. The Renaissance period saw the rise of increasingly xenophobic, anti-Jewish fears somewhat comparable to the prejudice against Islam in the Western world today, fed on and augmented by President Trump. We only have to look at the work of the so-called Old Masters to see how widespread these anti-Semitic sentiments really were. Not only were Jesus and his followers stripped of their Jewish identity and transformed into anachronistically Christian figures, but also, on the rare occasion that Jews were actually depicted in Renaissance art, their portrayal was far from complimentary. Albrecht Durer’s Jesus Among the Doctors is a case in point: the Jew that stands to the right of Jesus is almost caricature-like with his grotesque grin and hooked nose. Given the pervasiveness of this anti-Semitism, it’s no wonder that Marlowe’s Barabas is likewise presented according to the bigoted values of the age. He is, in fact, a complete caricature of the selfish and cruel Jew. And yet, what’s interesting about Marlowe’s play The Jew of Malta is that Jews are not the only group to receive criticism. Indeed, almost every religious group, Jews, Christians and Muslims alike, seem to be at the receiving end of Marlowe’s reproach. This can be said for the majority of Marlowe’s work, much of which is dedicated to the analysis and condemnation of religious doctrine and hypocrisy. So, with reference to Marlowe’s work and in particular The Jew of Malta, I intend to explore Marlowe’s views on religion as presented through his plays.

I must, of course, begin this essay with an analysis of the loathsome and Machiavellian character of Barabas. The prologue of the play, delivered by Niccolò Machiavelli himself, describes how Barabas ‘smiles to see how full his bags are crammed, / Which money was not got without my means.’ Immediately, then, he is presented as a typical machiavelle figure of Renaissance drama, characterised by the same scheming villainy encapsulated by Iago (Othello) and Edmund (King Lear) in Shakespeare’s plays. The words ‘my means’ refers to the philosophy set out by Machiavelli in his famous work Il Principe – a proto-self-help book preaching expediency over morality and the appearance over the reality of virtue. Barabas fills this role perfectly, almost all of his actions recalling Satan’s words in Book 4 of Milton’s Paradise Lost: ‘Evil be thou my Good.’ For example, he distances himself from the man with a conscience who ‘for his conscience lives in beggary.’ It is by acting without a conscience, Barabas implies, that he has acquired his huge fortune. This lack of conscience links directly to his greed and self-interestedness, obvious in the equal weight he gives to his wealth and to his daughter when he exclaims: ‘O girl! O gold!’ This levelling comparison clearly influenced Shakespeare in The Merchant of Venice when he had Shylock exclaim “O my ducats, O my daughter…” Barabas’s selfishness is also evident in his asides during the conversation he has with the other Jews in Malta. He says: ‘Assure yourselves I’ll look – unto myself.’ He cares only for himself, even bringing about the murder of his daughter’s lover to get his revenge on Ferneze. But, in the words of Harry Levin, these asides also serve to show Barabas’s Machiavellian emphasis on appearance, distinguishing between ‘deeds and words.’ He hides his true intentions from the other Maltese citizens, but treats the audience as his confidantes and thus implicates us in his crimes.

Though we may have some pity for Barabas in his cruel treatment by the Maltese governor and his similarities to Job, our sympathy quickly dissipates as he develops from a simple miser to a murderous villain. As Levin points out, Barabas ‘is a man with a grievance, but his retaliation outruns the provocation.’ Though he may begin as a revenger, he very quickly turns into the villain himself. This murderousness is clear in the famous speech Barabas gives when purchasing Ithamore as a slave: ‘As for myself, I walk abroad o’ nights, / And kill sick people groaning under walls; / Sometimes I go about and poison wells…’ Whether these claims are true is uncertain. It’s possible that this speech is only made in order to entice Ithamore, whom Barabas seems to have already discerned as a villain who, like him, hates Christians. Perhaps, also, Marlowe was simply playing on and parodying the extreme hatred for Jews in Europe. Whatever the answer, it’s undeniable that Barabas fulfils these murderous claims – by the end of the play, he has poisoned and killed the whole of a nunnery (including his own daughter), caused the death of two friends, slaughtered numerous Turkish soldiers, and much more. As the play progresses, his hands grow more bloody and his heart blacker, becoming exactly what European society expected a Jew to be. So it’s clear that Marlowe is playing on these early modern prejudices to present us with the frightful image of a Jew who really only cares for himself and his revenge.

And yet, it’s not just Barabas who is presented as a loathsome figure – almost every character in the play, apart from Abigail, is selfish and unsympathetic. And though we may strongly dislike Barabas, we are watching ‘the tragedy of a Jew’ - Barabas is our tragic hero, and to an extent we see the play from his perspective, often taking his side against the play’s other characters. Our sympathy for Barabas is stirred when he has his wealth seized by Ferneze the governor, under threat of Christian conversion. During this scene, Barabas launches a succession of bitter attacks against Christianity, beginning with the words: ‘Will you then steal my goods? / Is theft the ground of your religion?’ Here, Barabas points out the hypocrisy of their actions, going against the commandment ‘Thou shalt not steal.’ When Ferneze attempts to justify the cruelty of the Christians, he explains that Jews are infidels and that they ‘stand accursèd in the sight of heaven.’ This idea, that the Jews are to blame for the death of Christ (the ‘first curse’) and are therefore born sinful, was a typical trope of the period. Though the audience of the time may also have held this belief, it’s clear that Marlowe did not, or else he would not have allowed Barabas to respond in such cogent terms, appealing as he does to our sense of justice: ‘Shall I be tried by their transgressions? / The man that dealeth righteously shall live…’ Though we know that Barabas is far from righteous, we still sympathise with his argument that men should be judged according to their actions, not according to the actions of their ancestors. This can also be read as a Marlovian argument against the Calvinistic doctrine of Original Sin which held that all humans are born sinful due to Adam’s fall. And so, in this episode it is the Christians who are presented as heartless, with ‘policy’ (trickery or duplicity) as their profession, using scripture to confirm their wrongs. Arguably, it is this unjust and hypocritical treatment that leads Barabas to ‘make bar of no policy’ and adopt the same cruel attitude as the Christians have towards him.

So when Barabas says to his daughter that ‘religion / Hides many mischiefs from suspicion’ we can’t help but agree. The Christians of Malta have used their religion to justify their cruelty against the Jew, even though that cruelty goes against the New Testament credo ‘Love thy neighbour.’ Marlowe also takes care to demonstrate the vices of churchmen themselves, with Friar Jacomo and Friar Bernardine fighting over Barabas’s wealth. They care nothing for the cleansing of his soul or for his conversion – they care only for the goods he promises them. Indeed, Jacomo is so covetous of Barabas’s wealth that he stabs Bernardine, a fellow Christian. So Marlowe, here, is mocking and criticising the greed of the church and their hypocrisy. There are numerous other instances of this throughout the play. For example, when Abigail dies, she asks Friar Bernardine to ‘witness that I die a Christian’ and he simply replies: ‘Ay, and a virgin, too, that grieves me most.’ He breaks Church law when he reveals the contents of Abigail’s dying confession, and hopes to use what she has told him as blackmail. Once this scene has taken place, we can’t help but recall Ithamore’s earlier question: ‘have not the nuns fine sport with the friars now and then?’

It’s clear, then, that Christians and the Church also come under attack in this play. Indeed, the play’s conclusion reinforces Abigail’s beautiful lament that ‘there is no love on earth, / Pity in Jews, nor piety in Turks.’ She’s certainly right that Ithamore (the main representative of the Turks in the play) and Barabas are wicked. Abigail’s mistake, though, is to think there is love, pity, or piety in the Maltese Christians, who reveal themselves to be just as sinful and scheming as Barabas himself. Barabas is only killed at the end of the play because he is out-manoeuvred by another schemer, Ferneze, who, despite his religion, shows no mercifulness whatsoever at the play’s conclusion. As Barabas calls out ‘Help, help me, Christians, help!’ and asks ‘Governor, why stand you all so pitiless?’ Ferneze explains that he has no pity for him at all, wishing to see his ‘treachery repaid.’ Again, this demonstrates his religious hypocrisy – as a Christian, he ought not only to forgive and show mercy, but also to see it as God’s role to ensure justice, not his own. Thus, Ferneze abandons his religious morality (which he seems never really to have had) and uses Barabas’s own tactics against him. We might conclude with Levin, then, that ‘Morally, all of them operate on the same level, and that is precisely what Marlowe is pointing out.’ Every religious group is shown to be vicious and hypocritical, and various Christian doctrines come under attack, notably the idea that ‘Faith is not to be held with heretics,’ which Barabas himself uses against the Christians.

What’s most interesting, though, is that, whilst Marlowe was simply following theatrical clichés and contemporary bigotry when he presented Barabas in such a negative light, such an attack on Christians and Christian doctrine was rarely seen on stage. Perhaps this goes some way to reveal Marlowe’s own religious views. Indeed, as Paul H. Kocher suggests, Marlowe was ‘one of the most highly subjective playwrights of his age.’ Thus, the outright criticism of Christianity in The Jew of Malta may be suggestive. Moreover, Christianity is repeatedly questioned in Marlowe’s other works, notably Dr Faustus. Though the play is set within an undoubtedly Christian framework, and though Faustus is inevitably damned for his transgressions, we cannot help sympathising and even admiring his revolt against religion. We too desire to know the answer to eschatological questions like ‘who made the world’ and we too appreciate human beauty. Thus, the beautiful speeches Faustus gives cannot help inspiring our approbation. Indeed, Faustus’s paean to Helen (‘Was this the face that launch’d a thousand ships / And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?’) is one of Marlowe’s most powerful speeches, urging us to appreciate the strength of Faustus’s emotions when he tells the spirit: ‘thou art fairer than the evening’s air.’ W.W Greg argues that, sharing Faustus’s aesthetic appreciation, we allow ourselves to sympathise with him. Moreover, the fact that Marlowe’s verse reaches its pinnacle during a description of Helen, a symbol of pagan Greece, is surely indicative of his own feelings.

We don’t have to look far to find proof of these doubtful feelings in Marlowe’s biography. As Kocher pointed out, criticism of religion (and Christianity specifically) seems to have been ‘the most absorbing interest of his life.’ The first hint that Marlowe may have had an aversion to Christianity came when, having studied at Cambridge under an Archbishop Parker scholarship, Marlowe did not take holy orders as expected. More convincing are the allegations of atheism that Marlowe received a few years after his death: Baines, Aldrich, Cholmley and others all accused Marlowe of similar crimes, largely revolving around the preaching of atheism and the jesting at religious scripture and doctrine. Marlowe, like Machiavelli of the prologue, seems to have seen religion as no more than a ‘childish toy’.

Hence, when Faustus says that ‘hell’s a fable’ we cannot help recall Baines’s statement that Marlowe ‘perswades men to Atheism willing them not to be afeard of bugbeares and hobgoblins.’ And when Tamburlaine briefly comments ‘The God that sits in heaven, if any god,’ (my italics) it’s hard not to attribute this doubt to Marlowe himself. After all, given that Marlowe never intended to write two parts to Tamburlaine’s story, it’s odd that Tamburlaine is not punished for his crimes and his blasphemous aspirations in Part 1, and it’s doubtful whether his death in Part 2 can be seen as retributive justice rather than the natural result of mortality. Despite killing thousands of innocents, no god punishes Tamburlaine, suggesting Marlowe’s doubts as to whether there is any god at all. Moreover, when Barabas jests at Christian doctrine and blasphemes against Christ (for example, by marking his hidden jewels with a cross), it cannot escape our notice that Marlowe probably made similar jests and blasphemous remarks during his own lifetime, and thus that Marlowe is, to some extent, talking through Barabas. I hope, then, that I have shown how Marlowe’s own doubts and possible atheism are demonstrated in his work. Given the corruption of the Catholic Church in the Early Modern period (Anthony Kenny described Pope Alexander VI as ‘the most villainous man ever to have occupied the Roman See’), and given the oppressive nature of the Calvinist doctrine of predestination, it’s no wonder that an intellectual like Marlowe had difficulties in accepting Christianity. Like the characters he created, he struggled to see past the hypocrisy of churchmen, the contradictions in religious doctrine, and the restraints that Christianity (or indeed any religion) placed on its followers. 

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Opposition and Ambiguity in Milton's 'Paradise Lost'

The story of the Fall is one of opposition and conflict, centred around the battle of good and evil, faith and temptation. Michelangelo’s Fall of Man epitomises this opposition with its two separate depictions of Adam and Eve. On the left, Adam and Eve are shown in the throes of temptation, about to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge; and on the right, Adam and Eve are shown in their post-Lapsarian state, banished from Eden by the Archangel Michael. These two opposing presentations of pre-Lapsarian and post-Lapsarian man are divided by the evil figure of the wily serpent, the manifestation of wickedness in the Genesis story. John Milton, in adopting this story as the material for his epic poem, likewise adopts this emphasis on opposition and duality, with two main conflicts highlighted throughout: firstly, and most importantly, the conflict between good and evil, and secondly, how that conflict manifests itself in the two different states of humankind, sinless and then, after ‘Man’s first disobedience’, sinful. And yet, Milton’s presentation of these conflicts is not so straightforward as we might expect – there are ambiguities throughout. With the dubiously heroic portrayal of Satan and the rather ominous and seemingly cruel portrayal of God, we are forced to question, as readers, whether the line between the abstract concepts ‘good’ and ‘evil’ is really so finite. Likewise, with the hints at sinfulness and wantonness in Eve and in Eden before the Fall, and conversely, with the sense of man’s retained goodness after the Fall, Milton stresses the elusiveness of sinlessness and sinfulness, whilst also preparing us for the inevitable – first, the Fall of Man, and second, Man’s salvation through the death of Christ. In this way, Milton plays on these oppositions and conflicts in the poem and uses ambiguity to increase our anticipation and thrill as readers.

The epic poem begins with Milton declaring his intentions, to ‘assert Eternal Providence, / And justify the ways of God to men.’ Less than ten lines later, we are introduced to Satan, first referred to as ‘Th’infernal Serpent… whose guile’ is ‘Stirred up with envy and revenge.’ Thus, the poem begins with the aforementioned opposition of good and evil, the just ways of God as Milton perceives them, contrasted with the envious deceptions of his foe, the fallen angel Lucifer. This conflict is repeatedly emphasised in the poem – Christ is presented to us as the archetype of goodness in whom ‘the fullness dwells of love divine,’ whilst Satan declares his mission in completely opposing terms: ‘To do aught good never will be our task, / But ever to do ill our sole delight, / As being the contrary to his high will…’ This conflict between good and evil is stressed again and again, as when Milton observes how all Satan’s malice will serve ‘but to bring forth / Infinite goodness,’ a direct reversal of Satan’s wish to ‘out of good still to find means of evil’. Indeed, throughout the poem, there are echoing phrases like these that serve to recall earlier lines and give emphatic poignancy to their contrasting sentiments. For instance, in Book I, Satan exclaims: ‘hail, horrors, hail / Infernal world…’ whilst Book III opens with Milton’s similarly alliterative interjection, ‘Hail holy Light.’

We might also see this contrast in the epic poem’s contrasting elements of creation and destruction in the poem. Whilst God (the representative of ‘good’ in the poem) is the force of creation in Milton’s cosmos, Satan is the force of destruction – having already ‘sought / Evil to others’, he is now pictured ‘In meditated fraud and malice, bent / On man’s destruction.’ This opposition between creation and destruction is made particularly potent in Milton’s beautiful description of God’s creative acts, with all aspects of this new world revelling in fresh life. For example, the mountains heave their ‘broad bare backs’ into the clouds and the rivers hasten ‘with glad precipitance’. When we first see Eden, it is described (through Satan’s eyes) thus: ‘In narrow room Nature’s whole wealth, yea more, / A Heav’n on earth, for blissful Paradise / Of God the garden was, by him in the east / Of Eden planted…’ Here, Milton is drawing on the teleological argument to highlight God’s goodness as it manifests itself in the beauty and harmony of the natural world. As Helen Gardner notes, these descriptions of Edenic splendour demonstrate God’s kindness and are ‘inspired by Milton’s passionate belief in the goodness of the natural world as it was created and his delight in the principle of life...’ And yet, Satan’s evil prevents him from appreciating that beauty and goodness: he ‘Saw undelighted all delight’. I also ought to mention briefly the contrast between Satan and Abdiel (perhaps a manifestation of Milton himself), whose heroism we cannot help applaud as Milton describes him: ‘Among the faithless, faithful only he; / Among innumerable false, unmoved, / Unshaken, unseduced, unterrified…’ There is, then, clearly an opposition created in the poem between good and evil, between creation and destruction, and between faithfulness and faithlessness.

And yet, it’s hard to deny that, at some points, that good/evil division becomes blurred. Indeed, though in the first book Milton’s vocal interruptions colour our view of Satan as evil, Satan is still one of the most charismatic and apparently heroic figures in the poem, if not in the entirety of English literature. Who has ever read the aphoristic line ‘Awake, arise, or be forever fall’n’ without feeling an overwhelming sense of admiration for Satan’s heroic ambition and ‘fierce passion’? As Hazlitt remarks, we cannot help applauding Satan and his Promethean valour: ‘After such a conflict as his, and such a defeat, to retreat in order, to rally, to make terms, to exist at all, is something; but he does more than this – he founds a new empire in hell, and from it conquers this new world…’ Satan’s charm and irresistibility may come, in part, from the fact that his speeches were the first of the work to be written, originally part of Milton’s plan for a dramatic tragedy – hence, Gardner comments, ‘The intensely dramatic handling of the figure of Satan is a main cause of the extraordinary hold he has on the imagination.’ Moreover, we often find ourselves agreeing with Satan’s view of God as a cruel monarch who ‘Sole reigning holds the tyranny of Heaven.’ After all, when God is first introduced, he is seen ‘High throned above all heighth’ and he later ‘Commands all the angels to adore him’. Given Milton’s own religiously individualist and politically republican stances, it is no wonder, really, that he ‘wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God’ – in the words of Samuel Johnson, Milton had an ‘envious hatred of greatness,’ ‘a sullen desire of independence’ and a ‘pride disdainful of superiority’. Thus, the beginning of the poem, whether intentionally or not, tempts us to agree with Satan that it is ‘Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heav’n’. The lines between good and evil are blurred, and though we know that Satan’s speeches only ‘bore / Semblance of worth, not substance,’ we cannot help being attracted towards him.

There are similar oppositions in the presentation of Adam and Eve as they are seen before and after the Fall. Before the Fall, Adam and Eve are
‘Two of far nobler shape erect and tall,
Godlike erect…
And worthy seemed, for in their looks divine
The image of their glorious Maker shone,
Truth, wisdom, sanctitude severe and pure,
Severe, but in true filial freedom placed…’

They are presented to us as the image of perfect innocence – even their sexuality contains in it a certain pure nobility, repeatedly described with the word ‘mysterious’ which, in Milton’s time, had more to do with divinity than secrecy. Indeed, Milton even defends their open sexuality, saying that ascetics and Puritan hypocrites often defame ‘as impure what God declares / Pure, and commands to some, leaves free to all.’ Moreover, before the Fall, there was no sense of ‘guilty shame’ or dishonour in embracing sexuality. This pre-Lapsarian innocence is explicitly and immediately reversed after Adam and Eve eat the divinely prohibited fruit, when they engage at once in the ‘carnal pleasure’ against which Raphael warns them in Book VIII. They are described ‘As with new wine intoxicated both,’ the fruit inflaming in them ‘Carnal desire’. Adam casts ‘lascivious eyes’ on Eve, and ‘in lust they burn’. Likewise, Eve’s ‘eye darted contagious fire’. These repeated references to heat and fire highlight not only the sensuous and wanton nature of these desires, they also recall the burning fires of Pandemonium, and thus implicitly link this sexual depravity to the evil of Satan. And it’s not just in their sexuality that their post-Fall corruption reveals itself – they also grow blasphemous and proud, ‘and fancy that they feel / Divinity within them breeding wings…’ After eating the fruit, Eve even contemplates how the fruit may ‘render me more equal, and perhaps, / A thing not undesirable, sometime / Superior; for inferior who is free?’ The final question here again recalls Satan’s rhetoric when, in Book V, he questions how unequals can really be free. Not long after, the two are filled with ‘high passions, anger, hate, / Mistrust, suspicion, discord, and shook sore / Their inward state of mind, calm region once / And full of peace, now tossed and turbulent.’ Thus, Milton is keen to highlight the immediate change in his two human protagonists after they commit their first sin.

But there are ambiguities in this shift, too. Even before the fall, there are suggestions of sin and wantonness in both Eden and in man, prophetic suggestions of what is to come. This is largely insinuated through Milton’s descriptions of Eve’s hair, and as Jason Scott-Warren argues, ‘Milton makes Eve’s naturally curly hair indirectly responsible for the Fall of Man.’ Eve’s hair is described as ‘Disheveld, but in wanton ringlets wav’d, / As the Vine curles her tendrils’. This directly links Eve with the serpent, who is described as both ‘sly’ and ‘insinuating’ even before Satan has adopted the serpent’s form (demonstrating the evil already present in Eden before the Fall). The word ‘insinuating’, as Scott-Warren points out, comes from the Latin word ‘sinuare’ (notably containing the word ‘sin’) which means ‘to bend’ or ‘to curl’, thus linking Eve’s curling tresses to the serpent’s curling body. Thus, we are here given a premonition of Eve’s temptation and her eventual sin, highlighted in the word ‘wanton’ as used to describe her ‘ringlets wav’d’. This word is also used to describe the trees of the garden, which require ‘More hands than ours to lop their wanton growth…’ And finally, the river of Eden is described as curving and curling in ‘mazie error’. All of this combines to insinuate from our very first sighting of Eden that sin and the possibility of sin is indeed already present, despite the apparently innocent purity of Adam and Eve.

Milton also highlights the retained goodness in Adam and Eve even after their fall – unlike Satan, who knows there is ‘no place / Left for repentance’, Adam and Eve commit themselves to penitence and remorse. Milton describes how they ‘fell / Before him reverent, and both confessed / Humbly their faults, and pardon begged, with tears / Watering the ground, and with their sighs the air / Frequenting, sent from hearts contrite, in sign / Of sorrow unfeigned, and humiliation meek.’ This repentance is wholly ‘unfeigned’, distinct from Satan’s false and superficial protestations of sorrow in Milton’s sequel, Paradise Regained. As Johnson says, Adam and Eve are ‘amiable’ after the Fall ‘for repentance and submission.’ But it is not just in their repentance that we sympathise with them. It is also in the pure and wholly virtuous love that they show towards one another – for example, they both wish they could take all the punishment on themselves (Eve wishes ‘that all / The sentence from thy head removed may light / On me’). But it is Milton’s beautiful expression of their love that leaves us most sympathetic: Adam says to Eve, ‘How can I live without thee, how forgo / Thy sweet converse and love so dearly joined, / To live again in these wild woods forlorn? / Should God create another Eve, and I / Another rib afford, yet loss of thee / Would never from my heart…’ Eve reflects these sentiments when she tells Adam in such honourable terms, ‘thou to me / Art all things under Heav’n…’ Thus, as Waldock argues, we cannot help sympathising here, not only because they are now imperfect, mortal humans like us, but also because they are ‘following here the highest moral value we know – Love.’ And finally, we can only admire their dignity in accepting the loss of their paradise and embracing the ‘Paradise within’ as they ‘Through Eden took their solitary way.’

So it’s clear that Milton was keen, in this poem, to employ established oppositions and conflicts, whilst also manipulating them and making us question their validity. Just as Satan and God are held up against each other and yet both presented relatively ambiguously, so pre- and post-Fall humanity are explicitly contrasted though depicted in a nuanced way, with both sin and honour present before and after the Fall. Milton did this for a number of reasons, but it is largely due to the fact that the story of Paradise Lost was universally known, so Milton plays games with this idea of foreknowledge throughout. Satan is presented as tempting and almost admirable in Book I not only as an indication of Eve’s later temptation and seduction, but also as a warning to us to demonstrate how easy it is to be charmed by rhetoric, thus encouraging us to sympathise with Eve in her Fall.

In the same way, the descriptions of Eden and pre-Lapsarian Adam and Eve are littered with subtle insinuations of their future wantonness, thus preparing us for the Fall that we know is already inevitable. Because we’ve been prepared for the event by all these subtle references to sin, the simple climax of the poem needs no adornment to give it weight: ‘So saying, her rash hand in evil hour / Forth reaching to the Fruit, she pluck’d, she eat…’ As Gardner points out, ‘When at last we come to it, with the weight of the poem behind it, the undramatic presentation of this simple act of disobedience is profoundly dramatic.’ And finally, Adam and Eve are shown to retain their goodness after the Fall in order to prepare the Christian reader for what was to come – not only the goodness of Noah and Moses, but more importantly, the redemption and salvation of man through Christ’s death, as narrated by Michael. It is perhaps in this sense that Coleridge referred to Milton as ‘the deity of prescience,’ in that Milton is recounting a story that all his readers knew, and thus he fills it throughout with portentous and fateful hints to add to the story’s unfolding excitement. So, by blurring these traditional lines of opposition, Milton not only surprises his readers, he also makes his poem more dramatically effective. He has indeed fulfilled his wish that he might ‘leave something so written to after-times, as they should not willingly let it die.’ 

The Flaws of More's Fictional 'Utopia'

The so-called ‘Living Hall’ is the only room of The Frick Collection that has been left entirely unchanged since Henry Clay Frick moved into the mansion at the turn of the 20th Century. With its engaged columns, broken pediments and Victorian architraves, the room is typical of the Gilded Age mansions built in 19th century New York. It was Mr Frick himself who supervised the arrangement of the room, so it’s no surprise that, having purchased in 1912 Holbein’s portrait of Thomas More, he set his eyes on another of Holbein’s great works: his depiction of Thomas Cromwell. The portraits hang on either side of the Living Hall’s grand neoclassical fireplace, the two Thomases facing each other in apparent antagonism. Though painted five years apart, the portraits are seen as a pair, representative of the friction between these two royal advisors. Indeed, their roles in Henry VIII’s reign couldn’t have been more conflicting: Cromwell was one of the architects of England’s break with Rome and the Act of Supremacy, whilst More was martyred for his commitment to the Roman Catholic Church. Cromwell, along with Lord Richard Rich, was actually one of the major driving forces behind More’s execution, making the juxtaposition of these two portraits even more evocative.

It is testament to Holbein’s skill as a portraitist that, not only has he brought these figures so fantastically to life, he has also hugely influenced the way we view both More and Cromwell. More, who hosted Holbein on his first visit to England, is presented as affluent, wise, and confident. Cromwell, by contrast, is jowly and clad in black, looking cold and indrawn. More certainly comes out on top in this comparison, a wise and kindly man compared to a grim political fixer. This is how, until very recently, the two men have been regarded. There is, though, a darker side to Thomas More, a side that should not be ignored. Though Hilary Mantel’s depiction of More as a heretic hunting misogynist may be slightly extreme, it is perhaps more apt than Robert Bolt’s description of him as ‘A Man for All Seasons’. He was undoubtedly a great politician and an intelligent Humanist scholar, but that should not obscure completely an appraisal of the more questionable aspects of his character – he did, after all, think it acceptable to burn Protestants. The same can be said for More’s Utopia: though it has long been heralded as a great progressive work, there are features of the fictional world that lead us to ask uncomfortable questions. Hence, Utopia is one of the most hotly-debated works ever written, with critics wondering not only what More actually believed, but also whether Utopia comes anywhere near to the perfect commonwealth. And so, with reference to More’s life and work, I intend to explore the more unsavoury aspects of the Utopian world, present a nuanced view of the commonwealth, and thus unravel the enigma of Utopia.

There certainly are parts of the Utopian vision that were significantly ahead of their time. The abolishment of private property serves as the obvious example – because Utopia is a proto-communist state, (almost) everyone is equal. Nobody ever goes hungry or without a home, and the Utopians have no reason to be proud, greedy, or jealous. It was for this ideal that the Soviet Union honoured More when they placed his name on Moscow’s Stele of Freedom. And yet, even this aspect of Utopia must be questioned – after all, as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn argued, communism needs enslavement and forced labour to survive, something ‘...foreseen as far back as Thomas More, the great-grandfather of socialism, in his Utopia’. Hence, in order to ensure that the Utopian regime works, the Utopians have almost no freedom – they are, in effect, slaves. Hythloday explains to More and Giles that in Utopia, ‘wherever you are, you always have to work.’ Even more sinister is what he says next: ‘Everyone has his eye on you, so you’re practically forced to get on with your job…’ Reading this, we can’t help thinking of Orwell’s dystopian Nineteen Eighty-Four and, in particular, the omniscient figure of Big Brother controlling the mass-surveillance of Oceania. Like the characters of Orwell’s novel, the people of Utopia are deprived of much of their liberty. Even their sleeping patterns are governed by the state, and it’s hard not to imagine More chuckling to himself when he wrote: ‘They go to bed at 8 p.m., and sleep for eight hours…’ With the naming of Utopia after its founder, Utopos, we are also reminded of the disastrous attempt at a utopia known as ‘Jonestown’, also named after its leader and almost cult-like in its worship.

Along with this deprivation of freedom comes an undeniable lack of fun and excitement in Utopia. People are not allowed to travel without getting a passport, and even then they still have to work their normal hours. There are no ‘wine-taverns, no ale-houses, no brothels, no opportunities for seduction, no secret meeting-places,’ perhaps a good thing, though it still demonstrates how restricted Utopian life is. Moreover, there is complete uniformity amongst people, destroying almost any sense of individuality: everybody wears the same clothes (distinctions only made between sex and marital status), and every house on the island is identical. We cannot help doubting whether Utopia really could be the perfect commonwealth, given its lack of freedom, excitement and individuality. Hythloday himself seems to point out this flaw in Book I: ‘he who cannot reform the lives of citizens in any other way than by depriving them of the good things of life must admit that he does not know how to rule free men’. It would be hard to deny that the Utopians have been deprived of excitement: the game of virtues and vices, for example, sounds almost like More making a little joke.

Another aspect of Utopia that causes concern is the use of slavery. Just as in Plato’s Republic there were those who counted as citizens and those who were slaves, so Utopia can claim equality even whilst it uses slaves to hold its commonwealth together. If these slaves don’t count as citizens, then the Utopian egalitarian model has no responsibility to them. This was one of the premises of Greek utopias, the goal of the commonwealth being the happiness of its citizens, rather than the happiness of all. As Aristotle said, ‘the state is an association of equals… But… this is not for all’. The slaves in Utopia seem to be almost dehumanized: ‘The slaughtering of livestock and cleaning of carcasses are done by slaves. They don’t let ordinary people get used to cutting up animals, because they think it tends to destroy one’s natural feelings of humanity.’ There is a sinister quality to the distinction it makes between slaves and ‘ordinary people’. By dehumanising the slaves of Utopia, it seems acceptable that they should be enslaved and thus not regarded as equal. True, slavery is better than capital punishment, and the slaves of Utopia are treated relatively well – but is it really ethical to enslave someone for committing adultery, for example? Along with the use of slavery, there is an ominous sense of Utopian superiority reminiscent of the Aryan ideal in Nazi Germany. Hence, rather than risking the lives of their own citizens in war, the Utopians use ‘foreign mercenaries – whose lives they risk more willingly than their own.’ These mercenaries are the savage Zapoletans, who the Utopians have absolutely no concern for. Thus, Utopian policy towards these savages is inconsistent with the concept of universal human brotherhood depicted in the New Testament. As H.G. Wells argued, a real utopia requires a world state – every human in the world must work together and be equal for the concept of a utopia to be fulfilled.

Linked to this xenophobic sense of superiority is the questionable practice of Utopian colonisation. The Utopians govern according to their own values, and very often they force their own values on surrounding states, most notably the ideal that all land should be cultivated as much as possible. When natives won’t allow the Utopians to invade, colonise and cultivate their soil, the Utopians go to war, ‘for they consider war perfectly justifiable, when one country denies another its natural right to derive nourishment from any soil which the original owners are not using themselves, but are merely holding on to as a worthless piece of property.’ This argument seems logical, since the additional produce gained from newly cultivated land could improve the lives of Utopian citizens. And yet, this same argument could have been used against the Native Americans who protested the Dakota Access Pipeline. Donald Trump could very well have claimed his ‘natural right to derive nourishment from any soil’, ignoring the fact that, not only does the land belong to the indigenous Native Americans, but also that the land is sacred and thus non-expendable. So, just as with Trump’s approach to the Native Americans, there is clearly a sense that the Utopians know better, and thus they can excuse themselves for invading and exploiting the land of others. As George M. Logan suggests, the same is true of Plato and Aristotle, whose ‘attitude toward foreigners resembles their attitude toward slaves and artisans.’ Though they try to minimise death and destruction during times of war, and though they kindly give one seventh of exports to the poor of other countries, there is still the menacing sense that the Utopians are superior.

So it’s clear then that, just as with every imagined or attempted utopia, the fictional state created by More is undeniably flawed. The question we must now ask ourselves, though, is whether More actually believed Utopia was a perfect commonwealth. Many would like to think so, and thus proclaim him as a great communist thinker. But as Anthony Kenny points out, ‘Wherever we turn in Utopia… we find something which is contradicted in More’s life.’ It’s hard to imagine that a staunch Catholic, who strongly opposed the annulment of Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon, would ever advocate divorce in any form. We question, too, whether a man who spent much of his life as a lawyer and as Chancellor (the most important legal figure in the land), would have created a world without lawyers and attacked the length of legal codes: ‘it’s quite unjust for anyone to be bound by a legal code which is too long for an ordinary person to read right through, or too difficult for him to understand.’

But these are relatively small contradictions: the major inconsistency involves the treatment of religion in Utopia. Hythloday praises the Utopian tolerance of other religions and the fact that ‘no one is held responsible for what he believes’ (unless, of course, they are atheists, who are despised by Utopians). There is also a modesty in Utopian belief in that their prayer involves a confession of human ignorance: they ask God to show them ‘the truest religion,’ admitting that theirs may not be the best. The question is, would Thomas More ever have questioned the truth of the Catholic religion? Would More, who referred to himself as grievous to heretics and who burned six protestants during his reign as Chancellor, really preach religious tolerance? Well, perhaps. What qualifies the Utopian tolerance of religion is that religious trouble-making is not allowed. One man is arrested for disturbance of the peace because he ‘started giving public lectures on the Christian faith, in which he showed rather more zeal than discretion.’ Conversion attempts are permitted, but Utopians are ‘not allowed to make bitter attacks on other religions.’ Perhaps More viewed the likes of Tyndale and Luther as troublemaking heretics rather than simply people with different beliefs, and as they threatened to disband Christendom, he felt he had a duty to fight them: they must be ‘oppressed and overwhelmed in the beginning.’

These are, of course, debates that will never end. It’s most likely, though, that More’s final words on the matter can be used to summarize his point of view: ‘But I freely admit that there are many features of the Utopian Republic which I should like – though I hardly expect – to see adopted in Europe.’ Given that Hythlodeus means ‘dispenser of nonsense’ and that Utopia means ‘no place’, it’s unlikely that More really believed that the Utopian ideal could ever be fulfilled, let alone perfected. Rather, he was simply exploring various different ideas for the construction of a new commonwealth or the improvement of his own, and by speaking through Hythloday, he could be ‘like the ‘all-licens’d fool’ in King Lear’ and ‘tell home-truths with comparative safety’. As Logan argued, ‘Utopia is partly More’s ideal, and partly not.’ So just as we must avoid idealising Thomas More as ‘a man for all seasons’, so we must take Utopia for what it is: a work that includes many progressive ideas (euthanasia and communism, for example), but that also includes many ideas grounded in the mores of the past – hence, colonisation, misogyny, and the keeping of slaves, are seen as acceptable. And we cannot blame More for his strict views on adultery or for his belief in colonisation – these were mainstream views of the time and, after all, More never said he was attempting to create a better world, only ‘the best condition of the commonwealth’. Just as with most things, we need to take a nuanced view of both More and his work. Indeed, this use of nuance has never been so vital given the current political landscape, dominated as it is by partisan arguments and bigoted beliefs. Human beings are flawed, complex, and individual. The inevitable consequence of the human condition is that our policies and views will always be problematic, and the commonwealths we create will never be perfect.


Sunday, 13 August 2017

The Conflict of Idealism and Realism in The Parnassus Plays

Though we often think of modernism as the point at which artistic creation and the role of the artist-poet in society really became a major consideration of artistic work (exemplified by Wallace Stevens’s ‘Of Modern Poetry’), it was, in fact, during the Renaissance that this trend was first developed. Rogier van der Weyden’s Saint Luke Drawing the Virgin (right, c. 1445-50) is a perfect example of this motif, with van der Weyden’s painting bringing to the fore the idea of artistic creativity. The same can be said of Vermeer’s The Art of Painting (below left, 1666), a self-portrait of Vermeer painting an allegorical figure, possibly the Muse of History. As Walter Liedtke suggested, the painting can be read ‘as a virtuoso display of the artist's power of invention and execution…’ We can also see this focus on artistic creation as a theme in the poetry of the Elizabethan sonneteers, with Astrophel and Stella’s opening sonnet considering the difficulties of writing innovative verse. Still, the main focus of the sequence is not art itself – though it contemplates the ideas of artistic creation and convention, the sequence is mainly concentrated on love and desire. The Parnassus Plays, alongside the plays of the Poetomachia, were the first set of plays wholly devoted to the idea of writing as their central subject. As Paula Glatzer argues, the trilogy is ‘an Elizabethan embodiment of the eternal conflict between an artist and his society.’ But whilst the aforementioned paintings emphasise the dignity and importance of the artist in society, The Parnassus Plays, written at the turn of the century by Johnian students, focus more on the difficulties faced by scholar-poets. The trilogy moves from an almost naïve idealization of the accumulation of knowledge, to a highly pessimistic depiction of a cruel society, with the final two plays dominated by harsh realism and stinging satire. It is this progression from idealism to realism that holds the trilogy together and makes it such a relevant text to both students and artists today.

The first play is by far the most idealistic of the three. It begins with Consiliodorus counselling Philomusus and Studioso before they set out on their voyage to Parnassus, an allegory for embarking on their university studies. Consiliodorus speaks from ‘experience’ when he urges them on their voyage, lucidly depicting an idealised vision of Parnassus: ‘Where with sweet Nectar you youre vaines may fill, / … And teache them write some sweeter poetrie…’ Consiliodorus explains that, if he were young, he would make the voyage, even though he ‘foreknewe that gold runns to the boore’ – as he says, he would ‘be a scholler though I liue but poore.’ This is the central theme of the entire trilogy – that intellect will not bring worldly goods, and that scholars are largely condemned to poverty (‘Learninge and pouertie will euer kiss’). This is indeed a realist depiction of the scholar-poet’s struggle, and yet, for Consiliodorus, this is no reason for abandoning the scholarly life – rather, the problem is with society itself, ‘That knoweth not howe to weigh youre worthiness.’ As Glatzer argues, ‘if artistic values are superior, then society and its material rewards are things that the true Parnassian must transcend.’ Consiliodorus urges the scholars to go to ‘that pure and happie springe’ and then ‘Returne triumphant with youre laurel boughes…’

These are indeed glorified visions of learning and poetry, visions that will later be challenged by the failed scholar-poets and poetasters encountered during the voyage, the very ‘lozell, lazie, loitering gromes, / All foggie sleepers, and all idle lumps’ that Consiliodorus warned them against. The first tempter they encounter is Madido (‘moist one’), a drunkard who has abandoned his voyage in the land of logic in favour of wine and the poetry he believes that alcohol can inspire. Though Madido is a comic character and an antagonist, we are charmed by his effective use of simple diction set in rhythmic prose. We must also remember that this was first performed for students, who must have experienced similar temptations. And when Madido complains of patrons with ‘asses ears’ and claims that ‘This Parnassus and Hellicon are but the fables of the poetes,’ we cannot help but agree. Still, Philomusus and Studioso remain steadfast in their resolution, rejecting alcohol for ‘learnings glorious meede’. The second character they meet is Stupido, a much less persuasive character. Whilst Studioso says that he ‘neuer sawe a more delicious earth… Then here is in this lande of Rhetorique,’ the puritan Stupido condemns ‘these vaine artes of Rhetorique, Poetrie, and Philosophie.’ Stupido is an archetypal version of the satirized puritan figure, pompous, repetitious, arrogant, and generally ignorant. For example, the only argument he has for art’s immorality is the outlandish clothing of poets: ‘Artistes [are] fools, and that you may know by there vndecent apparell.’ This exchange, then, partially links to Sidney’s Defence of Poesy in that the author of The Pilgrimage is defending poetry against puritanical accusations of immorality. The real reason for Stupido’s puritanical rage, Philomusus reveals, is not his morals, but that fact that ‘he cannot reach vnto the artes’ and thus ‘Makes showe as though he would neglect’ them.

The next two failed scholar-poets that the protagonists encounter are Amoretto and Ingenioso, met in the land of poetry and the land of philosophy respectively. Amoretto enters reading verses from Ovid and seems to personify the argument against poetry that Sidney referred to when he described ‘how much it abuseth men’s wit, training it to wanton sinfulness and lustful love…’ Amoretto has made the error of believing that love and lust are the only subjects for real poetry – it is in poetry, Amoretto says, that they shall ‘all youre hungrie sences feaste…’ The two scholar-poets are tempted by Amoretto, who eloquently tempts them towards ‘wantome merriments’. These temptations are so strong that Philomusus speeches tend towards the more sensuous rhetoric of Amoretto, particularly when he says: ‘Phoebus hath laid his golden tressed locks / In the moist cabinet of Thetis lapp.’ And yet, with the opening of Act V, the two seem unsatisfied with these ‘yonge maides’, as Studioso says: ‘Howe sourelie sweete is melting venerie: / It yealdeth honie, but it straighte doth stinge.’ This leads Studioso to abandon the realm of poetry altogether, and this is precisely what Sidney warns against in his Defence – the danger of rejecting all poetry simply because of a few ‘entisinge Panders, subtile baudes’. But Philomusus refutes Studioso’s argument, picking up on the Sidneian rationale that ‘who reades poets with a chaster minde / Shall nere infected be by poesie.’ Like Sidney, the playwright suggests the greatest threat to poetry comes from those who abuse it from within.

The two protagonists’ final encounter is with Ingenioso, who agrees with Consiliodorus that ‘Learninge and pouertie will euer kiss’. And yet, whilst Consiliodorus saw this as a matter of Stoic acceptance, valuing learning above material wealth, Ingenioso lures Philomusus and Studioso from their path because ‘Parnassus is out of siluer…’ This final act prepares us for the succeeding two plays, with Ingenioso describing how ‘Apollo is banckroute’ whilst ‘tapsters, ostlers, carters, and cobblers haue a fominge pauch.’ But the protagonists reject Ingenioso’s complaints, declaring that, though they ‘knowe that scholers comonlie be poore / And that the dull worlde there good partes neglecte,’ they still ‘thinke not worse of faire Parnassus hill’. This stoic acceptance and idealised conception of intellectual value is admirable, but Ingenioso’s final words are nonetheless prophetic: ‘Farewell, and take heede I take youe not napping twentie yeares henc in a vicars seate… or els interpreting Pueriles Confabulationes to a companie of seauen years olde apes.’ The play ends with a beautiful description of Parnassus, a ‘laurell shadie groue’ where they shall ‘heare the Muses tunefull harmonie.’ Thus, the first play of the trilogy presents those failed scholar-poets who could not stomach the voyage to Parnassus as the real antagonists, whilst Philomusus and Studioso persevere in their idealism despite temptation and the realist knowledge that learning will not lead to material wealth. They follow Consiliodorus’s advice, and end the play with a sense of pure optimism.

This hopefulness, though, is shattered at the start of the first part of The Return. As Glatzer says, the plays progress in ‘increasing disillusionment’ and this opening demonstrates the start of that progression. The playwright of the Pilgrimage is said to have been made ‘a staide man’ whose ‘looke was neuer sanguine since that daye,’ a meta-theatrical demonstration of the play’s major theme – the suffering of the scholar-poet. And yet, there is still, arguably, a sense of idealism in the opening, even if the play demonstrates the increased insignificance of the scholar-poet in society. For example, the stagekeeper tells the audience ‘Our muses praise depends not on thy breath.’ This daringly suggests that the play has artistic merit independent of audience approval, and thus it is, perhaps, a writer’s proud rejection of societal appreciation in general. Still, the majority of the play is pessimistic about the role of the scholar-poet and the difficulties facing him. The play depicts Studioso and Philomusus once they have left Parnassus and entered the real world. Whilst the first play was a tension between the scholar-poets and those that tempted them away from their course, the two Return plays dramatize the tensions between the scholar-poet and society, only briefly alluded to in the previous play. Hence, Ingenioso, who previously emphasised this tension in the Pilgrimage but was dismissed as a ‘wilie knaue’, becomes one of the major protagonists in this sequel and is greeted as an old friend.

The most obvious change in tone comes in Consiliodorus. Though he was previously aware that wealth and learning do not go hand in hand, he seems now to believe that the value of learning is not enough in itself. As he says: ‘Hencforthe let none be sent by carefull syres, / Nor sonns nor kinred, to Parnassus hill, / Since waywarde fortune thus rewardes our coste / With discontent, theire paines with pouertie.’ Consiliodorus, Philomusus, and Studioso have realized, in the words of Glatzer, that ‘Parnassus may, after all, not suffice.’ Thus, each of them addresses this problem in a different way: Ingenioso turns to satire, even if that means abandoning his poetic principles (‘Foole I to angell in a misers mudd, / But hope of gould did make mee guilde this woode’); Philomusus becomes a sexton; and Studioso becomes a tutor, as Ingenioso prophesized. But even in abandoning their scholarly and poetic principles, all three protagonists struggle. Philomusus and Studioso lose their dignity, and later lose their employment, whilst Ingenioso (often compared to Nashe) struggles to find patronage, and is only given ‘two groates’ for his pamphlet – it is worth noting that Nashe, too, had difficulty finding patronage. Ingenioso’s interactions with Gullio dramatize the poet’s dilemma in dealing with patrons who are unable to appreciate artistic merit when they see it – Gullio condemns both Chaucer and Spenser, whilst praising Shakespeare at length who, at that time, was considered a relatively low-brow romantic poet rather than the great bard we think of today. Still, despite Gullio’s ignorance, Ingenioso needs the money: ‘My pen is youre bounden vassall to comande,’ he tells him obsequiously.

It’s not long, though, before all three are left poverty-stricken and out of work. Ingenioso has been dismissed by Gullio as a ‘Base, base, base, peasant’ for telling the truth about Gullio’s mistress; Studioso was kicked out of his role as tutor for being proud; and Philomusus was replaced for negligence. But, whilst, as Glatzer points out, ‘Philomusus and Studioso’s social battle with the worldlings is debilitating,’ Ingenioso’s is, to some extent, ‘exhilerating’. Philomusus constantly laments and complains, attacking Studioso for his stoicism: ‘Why, can a man be galde by pouertie, free spirits subiected to base fortune, and put it vp like a Stoick.’ Ingenioso, on the other hand, retains his spiritual superiority over others, explaining that he would ‘rather liue in pouertie / Than be tormented with the tedious tales / Of Gullios wench and of his luxuries…’ He is, according to Glatzer, determined ‘to exact literary vengeance on his social opponent, to use his verse for the purpose of abusing the patron.’ Thus, he says, ‘For Gullios sake Ile proue a Satyrist.’ This, again, is arguably another meta-theatrical comment in that the play itself is a satire, and the protagonist is praised as a satirist. Indeed, Glatzer even says that the literary moral of the Return plays is that ‘satire is the price a society must pay for disdaining its artists.’ Thus, the second part of the trilogy ends with Ingenioso more prepared for the real world than Philomusus and Studioso. He explains: ‘Well, fawne the worlde, or frowne, my wit maintaine mee: / The press shall keepe mee from base beggarie’. Conversely, Studioso and Philomusus head off ‘To Rome or Rhems’ and bid farewell to this ‘heard hearted clyme’. And so, we have seen in these first two plays the progression of Philomusus and Studioso from scholars yearning for an idealised sense of knowledge and intellect, to debased scholar-poets trying to make their way in a society that does not appreciate their wit. Though they knew all along that intellect does not lead to wealth, they now begin to doubt the value of intellect in itself.

The third play takes this realism to a new extreme, with the scholar-poets now pleading with members of the monied middle classes, the ‘new men’ of Elizabethan England. Ingenioso appeals first to Danter, the notoriously licentious printer, sacrificing his artistic principles in writing a shameless pamphlet which he knows will sell well, and then appeals to a trio of ignorant private patrons; Academico sues for pastoral preferment from Sir Raderick and Amoretto; and Philomusus and Studioso, the once idealistic pilgrims from Parnassus, pose as physicians and cony catchers. They have, by this point, completely abandoned Consiliodorus’ principle of self-integrity, most evident when Philomusus says to Studioso: ‘But lets leaue this capping of rimes… let vs run through all the lewd formes of lime-twig purloyning villaynes, let vs proue Cony-catchers, Baudes, or any thing, so we may rub out.’ They even begin to despise the very learning they acquired at Cambridge, with Philomusus saying that ‘if any of the hidebound brethren of Cambridge and Oxforde… that abused vs in times past… become our patients, wee’l alter quite the stile of them…’ Like Ingenioso in his vow to attack the society that has neglected his art, so Philomusus and Studioso are determined to revenge their maltreatment by whatever means. By this point, as Glatzer argues, ‘Their recent worldly exploits have cursed them with the knowledge of social evil, and in The Second Return they descend ever further, and choose, cynically, to experience evil.’ When these exploits fail them, they descend even further, attempting to become professional actors (‘mimick apes’ and ‘glorious vagabonds’) – a profession scorned at the universities.

It is, arguably, at this point that our sympathy for Philomusus and Studioso begins to dwindle. Of course, we pity their predicament, but their complete abandonment of their principles certainly puts them at a distance from the audience. Glatzer eloquently writes: ‘Not only do they abuse the world on its own terms, playing the false physician and tutor; they also pervert their own artistic values by co-opting with Burbage and Kempe, and then by fiddling for Sir Barbarism’s patronage.’ Whilst they frequently demand sympathy from the audience as rejected Parnassians (‘To beare too long argues an asses kinde’), they also take part in society’s own Machiavellian schemes. Thus, the play ends in complete pessimism, with no real persuasive argument for the worth of the arts. The final scene shows all the scholar-poets encountering one another again, all having abandoned their previous attempts at accumulating wealth. Philomusus explains that they ‘haue run through many trades, and thriue by / Poore in content’ and are now intent on a Spenserian shepherd’s life. Ingenioso and his companions are fleeing to the ‘Ile of Dogges’ to ‘vext breath in snarling wast’, having been apprehended for their slanderous satire (again, recalling Nashe and his lost play). As Studioso remarks, ‘well thou dost from this fond earth to flit, / Where most mens pens are hired parasites.’ Academico, on the other hand, will return to his cell in Cambridge, even though it is a ‘melancholick life’. Thus the play ends in utterly pessimistic realism, ‘discontent’ because ‘few schollers fortunes are content’.

And so, the plays begin with a knowledge that wealth and learning are mutually exclusive, but with learning valued above material wealth. It is only when they get into the real world that they realise how naïve they had been in thinking they could survive on knowledge alone. In the new capitalist world emerging in the late 16th Century, one needed more than just knowledge to get by. As Glatzer notes: ‘The harsh but unavoidable conclusion of the Parnassus Plays [withdrawal to the countryside] is that there is no legitimate secular place for the artist in society.’ In a sense then, the two Return plays can be seen as a response to both the Pilgrimage play and also Club Law (1599), a play performed at Clare Hall in which Cambridge civilians are forced to accept the university scholars as superior. The Return plays seem to refute the idealism of the Pilgrimage whilst also rejecting the optimism of Club Law. The ideal view that the scholar’s knowledge surpasses all material wealth and that the scholar will triumph over citizens, the Return plays suggest, is simply untenable, not only because Cambridge is not representative of the realities of the wide world, but also because the premises of the two plays are based wholly on a false and idealistic romanticising of knowledge. Thus, though it may be somewhat unsavoury for the modern audience, the Parnassus Plays seem to reveal the naivety of young scholars and demonstrate the severe difficulties they will face once they leave Parnassus. Perhaps, the plays seem to suggest, the voyage to Parnassus is not really worth it – perhaps Ingenioso was right all along.