Saturday, January 28, 2006

O Rare Will Davenant!

I was putting on a fake rant a couple of days ago to provoke one of my postgraduate students (“Davenant is really the wet rot in middle 17th century literature: stopped in one place, he’d just re-appear in another, making form after form artistically uninhabitable: risible tragedies, piffling epic, disjointed masques, leaden comedy. As poet laureate, he set the standard, and they all slid down-hill with him.”) My favourite piece of Davenant is what he did to Macbeth in about 1664. He was a theatre manager in the Restoration period, so he had to boost up the roles of that terrific new addition to the theatre, the professional actress. So, he set about giving the play a few softer, feminine touches. Mr. Macbeth sends his letter about the prophecy to Mrs. Macbeth, and we find her in possession of the letter, but also in dialogue with Mrs. Macduff. This scene starts politely:

Lady Macbeth.
Madam, I have observ’d since you came hither,
You have been still disconsolate. Pray tell me,
Are you in perfect health?

But having got Lady Macduff on stage for this 17th century rendering of ‘Desperate Housewives’ (for she is frightfully worried about all this horrid fighting the menfolk are up to), Davenant must get her off again, as Lady Macbeth has to read the letter alone. She confides this to the audience:

(Her presence hinders me; I must divert her.)
If you are ill, repose may do you good;
Y’had best retire; and try if you can sleep.

There, you go and have a little lie down, love. Besides a whole lot more of the Macduff’s, Davenant reckoned that Shakespeare just didn’t give enough to the actress playing Lady Macbeth. So in his version, she is troubled by visions of Duncan’s ghost (“Macbeth. ‘How does my gentle Love?’ Lady Macbeth.Duncan is dead.’”). Davenant makes her – as a sentimentalized version of herself – into a moral being, who reproaches Macbeth for the murder. His Macbeth responds to this with, I suppose, a sharp intake of breath:

Can you think that a Crime, which you did once
Provoke me to commit? Had not your breath
Blown my Ambition up into a Flame
Duncan had yet been living.

But there is no stopping her, she has an answer for that:

Lady Macbeth.
You were a man,
And by the Charter of your Sex you shou'd
Have govern’d me, there was more crime in you
When you obey’d my Councels, then I contracted
By my giving it. Resign your Kingdom now,
And with your Crown put off your guilt.

Davenant then pretends that he hasn’t written the lead-in to a fantastic marital row; Macbeth merely goes off to consult the witches, whom he probably finds more reasonable and understanding.

It would be interesting to have a production, say on April Fools’ Day, smuggle the Davenant scenes into a modern Macbeth, just to see how long it was before people noticed.

Davenant's chief fame is as English literature's notorious victim of the pox. As Thomas Randolph was then famous for losing his finger, Davenant was famous for losing his nose. Doubtless the portrait (above) flattered what remained to him. He seems to have recovered, and had nine children by his third wife - even in those rather haphazard times, it is hard to imagine so large a family if the children were all born ill with the disease, like in an Ibsen play. I understood that mercury treatment only suppressed symptoms of syphilis, rather than curing it. Maybe Davenant suffered some fever in which a pyrogenetic response by the body finished off his major ailment.

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