Dobson v. Lewis
Michael Dobson is right that my book Hamlet and the Vision of Darkness doesn’t pay much attention to the long and celebrated history of Hamlet in performance (LRB, 13 September). This history is important in its own right, but as it only begins in the later 17th century, it was of little use in thinking about my chosen field of inquiry: that is, how and why Shakespeare wrote Hamlet as he did, when he did. Dobson’s insistence that my readings of particular scenes or characters are dubious because he doesn’t know of their being performed in similar fashion is a lot like declaring that the text of the Bible can’t possibly mean such and such because such and such is at odds with the doctrines of the true universal church. Deeply felt and ideologically sound, no doubt, but unlikely to advance an understanding of the biblical text. Dobson is puzzled by my statement that ‘the first sustained critical engagement with Hamlet would have to wait until 1736.’ I had in mind George Stubbes’s Some Remarks on the Tragedy of Hamlet; it’s a good text to argue with and Dobson should give it a try.
When he finally turns to the substance of my book, he walks the line between inattention and distortion. One example will suffice. He says that my Polonius is simply ‘a buffoon’. I say, apropos Polonius’s change of heart about Hamlet’s feelings for Ophelia, that his ‘self-criticism is courageous and humane … Despite his theatrical origins in the Pantalone figure of the commedia dell’arte, to say nothing of the way he is often played, Polonius was not written as a caricature of flimsily moralistic expediency.’ You decide.
Dobson now unburdens himself of the view that I am ‘driven by an animus [against Hamlet] of which [I] seem largely unaware’. Apparently, my remark that Hamlet’s vision of the cosmos ‘is a staple of ancient and medieval thought’ shows that I have unfairly ‘taken Hamlet to task’. Likewise, my concluding suggestion that Hamlet belongs to the category of the adolescent as the early moderns understood it resembles ‘the coup de grâce patronisingly delivered to a rival’. Blind though I might be to the inner workings of my mind, the only animus here belongs to the reviewer: a high priest of institutionalised Shakespeare studies casting around for anything that might help him to defend the territories he thinks of as his own.
As for Dobson’s pronouncement that I see Hamlet ‘as a play that presents a set of events and even motivations as definitive and unchanging as those of a realist novel’, I wonder whether he has read many ‘realist’ novels; not the same ones as me, certainly. We infer what we can from the action and language of the play. The rest (How exactly did Claudius kill Old Hamlet? Did Gertrude know? Did Hamlet and Ophelia ever have sex?) is a matter of interpretation. I make much of what I take to be Hamlet’s insistence that since drama is a heuristic art such interpretations can seldom, if ever, be singular or fixed. Dobson presumably skipped these pages.
Rather than ‘an entire monograph dedicated to the proposition’ that early modern humanism was ‘a confidence trick’, Hamlet and the Vision of Darkness concerns itself with humanism as a means of better understanding the plight in which Hamlet and the rest of Shakespeare’s dramatis personae find themselves: ‘the design of the present work is to establish Hamlet as a play that depicts – with varying degrees of sympathy, impatience and horror – the experience of being confined to the darkened space between two moral and cultural worldviews. One dead, the other powerless to be born. One a ghost, the other as yet confined to fantasy.’ At the core of my argument is the claim that, in scripting the part of Hamlet within Hamlet, Shakespeare explores the uncomfortable truth that the failure of moral and cultural order alienates us not only from one another, but from ourselves; like everyone else in the play, he is ‘a victim, a symptom, and an agent’ of the ills that afflict his world. As current in 2018 as it was c.1600? Discuss.
Finally, I should note that on two or perhaps three occasions, I have been seated in close proximity to Dobson at the theatre. If I muttered darkly or otherwise marked myself out as beyond the pale, he was on each occasion polite enough to feign obliviousness.
Michael Dobson’s wide-ranging review has one startling lacuna – no mention of the criticism of A.C. Bradley. It was Bradley who established the trend to see the plays (Hamlet in particular) as novels, an approach mocked in Guy Boas’s poem ‘Lays of Learning’, first published in 1926:
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.
She drove him mad
As head of the FCO department dealing with Israel and Palestine from 1980 to 1983, I agree with and can confirm a good deal in Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s article (LRB, 13 September). It was widely thought at the time that Margaret Thatcher’s Jewish constituents and her feelings about Israel put her at odds with her foreign secretary, Lord Carrington, and the Foreign Office. It is true that Carrington told us half seriously that he gave her weekly tutorials on the subject, and that she drove him mad by demolishing his ideas and then repeating them the following week as her own. But her views owed less to Finchley and what Wheatcroft calls her philosemitic inclination than to her loathing for terrorists. For her the Israeli prime ministers she had to deal with, Begin and Shamir, were terrorists as much as Arafat and the PLO.
Wheatcroft mentions the affair of the two British sergeants who were hanged by the Irgun. During the 1981 G7 summit in Quebec our consular representative there phoned me – he said it was the first time he had ever phoned anybody in the Foreign Office. He thought London ought to know, in case it was picked up by the mainstream media, that a local paper had a story to the effect that Thatcher and Pierre Trudeau had gone for a walk together and she had told him the story of the two sergeants, and as she was telling it broke down and wept. I told the Number 10 press office. The story wasn’t picked up, but Number 10 rang back later to tell me it was true.
When it became clear that the Israeli ambassador Shlomo Argov, shot in London by Abu Nidal terrorists, would never be able to return to his duties there was press speculation about his successor. One hot favourite was the Israeli ambassador to South Africa, a former chief of staff of the Irgun. I suggested that rather than waiting for the politically rather embarrassing business of refusing Agrément we should let the Israeli government know in advance that they had better not propose him. Some of my FCO superiors were doubtful; the PM dealt regularly with Begin, the former leader of the Irgun – how could she say no to this man? I said that HMG had no locus in choosing the Israeli prime minister but we had the right to refuse an ambassador. The file went to Number 10 and she agreed with me. The Israelis were tipped off and no more was heard.
Two corrections to Wheatcroft. The 1980 Venice Declaration did not call for a Palestine state, it called for self-determination for the Palestinian people – it’s true that the coded message was the same, but decoding it wasted valuable years. Second, Thatcher was not the first Western head of government to meet Palestinian leaders – the pioneer seven years earlier was a non-Zionist or anti-Zionist Jew, the Austrian chancellor Bruno Kreisky.
It might be worth trying to suppress a small myth before it becomes established as a footnote to history. Geoffrey Wheatcroft retells a story about a remark I made to Arafat hoping that one day I would be able to buy Palestinian textiles in an independent Palestine. The remark he says was made ‘when Arafat was staying in London’. Not so. It was made when I visited Arafat, with the full backing of Thatcher, in Tunis. This visit was a careful and important upgrading of relations with the PLO, which had never had a formal meeting with a serving British minister before. It followed detailed negotiations in London between FCO officials and Bassam Abu Sharif. Arafat never came to London in that period. This was not just light relief but a serious and considered step by the British government led by Thatcher, and briefly at least tacitly supported by President Bush Senior’s State Department.
Build a Wall
Inigo Thomas reminds us that rising sea levels and tropical storms will, eventually, destroy the monstrous pretensions of Mar-a-Lago, but the sharp contrast he draws between the open beaches of England and Florida’s enclosed enclaves of privilege should be challenged (LRB, 30 August). He is wrong to assert that ‘beaches in the UK are open to all, unless they form part of a naval base.’ Certainly, most beaches are open, because they are held as crown property and a convention has developed to allow free public access to them. But there is no right of access, unless public rights of way or a right to roam have been registered. That there is no general right of public access to beaches was established in an 1821 case, despite a very strong argument by the dissenting judge that such a right did and should exist in common law.
The Supreme Court with a touch of reluctance confirmed this position in 2015. The decision concerned a private beach in Newhaven in East Sussex to which public access had been withdrawn. An attempt was made by both the local public and the local authority to register the beach as a ‘village green’ in order to establish and protect rights of access. This was not the first time such a strategy had been deployed, but the 2015 judgment has now made it much more difficult to use registration as commons or village greens as a means of keeping access open. While this case dealt with a privately owned beach (even in the UK a good proportion of beaches are privately owned), the judgment makes clear its application to crown property too.
In Florida, as in other American states, the proactive development of ‘public trust doctrine’ has emerged as one line of defence against enclosure. Caribbean islands (not included in the Supreme Court survey) such as Barbados, Antigua and St Lucia which, unlike Jamaica, have a history of open public access to all beaches, are now so shattered by the economic fallout from hugely destructive tropical storms that many find themselves caught in a rapid shift towards the privatisation favoured by overseas investors and tourists seeking ‘exclusive’ enclaves in paradise.
Kent Law School, Canterbury
Censorship at the BBC
My father, Denis Johnston, was a war correspondent with the BBC. He arrived in Egypt in 1942 when the Eighth Army was in full retreat ahead of Rommel’s Afrika Korps. The BBC’s Cairo correspondent was Richard Dimbleby. My father was appalled by the sardonic laughter of the soldiers listening to Dimbleby’s breezy optimistic reports, which originated from the generals (LRB, 30 August). ‘From that time on,’ he records in his memoirs Orders and Desecrations, ‘I was firmly determined not to say a word that I would not be prepared to hear coming back to the ears of the Eighth Army at Alamein while I sat among them.’ The light dawned on the BBC brass in London and Dimbleby was recalled, much to his lasting indignation. Soon after that General Montgomery arrived. He recognised the power of radio in his own self-promotion, through which he transformed the morale of the Eighth Army, the counter-attack succeeded, and the tide of the war turned.
Listening to Children’s Hour in 1940 when I was eight years old, I heard the programme interrupted by a new voice, a man speaking in a firm, calm but urgent way. If you have a boat, the man said, capable of crossing the Channel, take it now to the coast of France and bring home some British soldiers. I asked my mother about this and she began to cry. In fact, for the next few days the grown-ups (my mother and aunt, and my friends’ mothers) were often in tears. A little was rather tremblingly explained to us. Soon we began to see lorries, and even buses, full of tired-looking soldiers, driving up the main road from the coast. I have listened to the wireless every day for most of my life – forgotten most of it, but never that interruption to Larry the Lamb.
I, too, believed I heard Churchill deliver that post-Dunkirk speech over the wireless on 4 June 1940. I was 14 at the time of Dunkirk and well aware of the possible consequences. Some years ago a schoolfriend asked me if I remembered the speech. He said it was rumoured that Churchill had not given it himself; the guy who played Larry the Lamb in the ‘Toytown’ series on Children’s Hour had impersonated him. We laughed that off. But after reading Ian Jack’s article I am now convinced that Churchill did not broadcast his speech. Its most defiant and inspiring passages were read during the nine o’clock news by the regular news reader. In the original speech Churchill referred to ‘the odious apparatus of Nazi rule’. Did the BBC presenter read ‘Nazi’ with the German pronunciation, or copy Churchill’s trademark, contemptuous ‘Naarzi’ pronunciation? It’s easy to understand how, in that time of dread uncertainty, so many of us heard Churchill’s own growling voice behind those words and felt a sense of reassurance and resolve.
Be careful what you wish for
Stephen Sedley criticises Theresa May for having as home secretary ‘recycled the myth about foreigners evading deportation because they are cat-owners’ (LRB, 30 August). This is not a myth. There was a ‘catgate’ case and May’s account of it, though hardly devoid of political advantage seeking, was essentially correct. I will happily supply a transcript of the case, which is not publicly available, and my commentary on it, to those who ask.
Sedley is of course right that the European Convention on Human Rights (and therefore the Human Rights Act) is Churchill’s legacy. But the implicit claim that Churchill would have intended to leave as his legacy the chaos caused by the convention and the act as they now are interpreted in UK asylum and immigration law, and the parlous state of judicial review and the danger to national security consequent on this, is not right. The currently highly successful use of the convention and the act in a process of replacing parliamentary sovereignty with judicial supremacy would, obviously, be even less part of Churchill’s intention.
In a blue velvet gown
Susan Pedersen alludes to Constance Markievicz, one of the 73 Sinn Féin MPs who refused to take their Commons seats in 1918 (LRB, 30 August). She might have mentioned that Markievicz was also one of those ‘women who had spent years in the suffrage movement’. In 1892, she moved to London to study painting, and joined the NUWSS; in 1896, back in Ireland, she and her sister Eva Gore-Booth founded the Sligo Women’s Suffrage Association. She was also a member of Inghinidhe na hÉireann (Daughters of Ireland), which was later absorbed into Cumann na mBan (the Irishwomen’s Council), a women’s paramilitary organisation. (The countess came to her first meeting from a party at Dublin Castle, wearing a blue velvet evening gown and a diamond tiara.) In 1908 she joined Sinn Féin, and her suffragism was overtaken by her nationalism. When she received news of her election to the House of Commons – in a letter addressed ‘Dear Sir’ – she was in Holloway Prison. She would become the first female cabinet minister in the Dáil when she was appointed minister for labour in 1919. It’s said she visited the House of Commons only once in her life, to see her name engraved above a coat-peg.
Abbeyfeale, Co Limerick
Tariq Ali writes that there are no Dalit rebellions on record (LRB, 30 August). In fact one took place in 1927. A few years earlier legislation had been passed allowing Untouchables to use public watering places, but they had been prevented by caste Hindus from using the Chowdar Tank, an artificial lake in Mahad. B.R. Ambedkar led a procession of thousands of Dalits to the tank to take drinking water from it, which led to violent repercussions from local Hindus, who saw the tank as having been polluted.
Protests against the oppressions of caste Hinduism did not stop there. On 14 October 1956 Ambedkar publicly renounced Hinduism and converted to Buddhism in a ceremony in Nagpur. Immediately after his own conversion, he turned to the assembled crowd of 400,000 Dalits and led them in another conversion ceremony. Ambedkar died that December, but the conversions continued, and by February 1957 an estimated four million Dalits had become Buddhists. This may not have changed their political status, but it was a significant step towards greater self-determination. The Buddhist Dalit community continues to thrive, mainly in the state of Maharashtra, to this day.