Burns and Shakespeare chapter six



Scene six or chapter six
in which our poets awake within their pre-historic world
Prospero:
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp'd tow'rs, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on
; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.
At this point we should remind ourselves not to ask what our two heroes look like or what they’re wearing. They look as you want them to look and they wear or do not wear what you are happy to see them wearing or not wearing.
Also we must remember that most of the language is here translated into modern English, or indeed any other language known to or preferred by the listener / reader.  And please remember that in a land of milk and honey neither time nor space exists.
Burns and Shakespeare have no actual need to sleep. They sleep only when and for howsoever long it should please them and they dream their dreams at will, each to his own. Being asleep is therefore, for them, pretty much the same as being awake: all- knowing, all-seeing, unhurt and unhurting, untrammelled and without weight. Marvellous, you may think, but here there are no marvels. How could there be in a world where nothing is unexpected, everything is right, everything is perfectly understood?
So, to continue …
RB: (murmurs)  To sleep: perchance to dream … awake now, he opens his eyes, sees the sky bright overhead, fronds of giant ferns twisting and nodding before a gentle breeze. He hears the whisper of many great trees, the calls and slap-slapping flights of leathery, feathery birds, the stentorian cough and grunt of some malcontent giant, the rhythmic shush of sea on close-by shore. He senses the movement of insects within the vegetation on which he lies, re-closes his eyes the better to get the scent and the taste of it; of all of this. To be all of this. Will, he murmurs, I would like to know … Shakespeare interrupts …
WS: Yes, Rob?

RB: Truth. The truth set down in the written word even when we knew the truth would  hurt people - even our very selves. For what good reason?

WS: Everything of any good. Always I tried to convey such a high degree of truth as to be truer even than reality. A kind of magnification. I tried my best to set it within words within the music heard only in my mind. As you say, the truth can be hurtful but people of any value still tried not to lie, nor even to obfuscate. Not always with success, mind. Chuckles, slaps his friend on the shoulder. I think that applied especially to Robert Burns Esquire of Ayrshire in Scotland.

RB: Perhaps. Truth often appalled the Edinburgh high and mighty and therefore it did me no good. But telling in verse and song what I believed to be the truth was so much easier than wretched dissembly.  

WS: Witness your, Ode on General Washington’s birthdayHere's freedom to them that would read./ Here's freedom to them that would write! / There's none ever feared that the truth should be heard / But they whom the truth would indite!

RB: Mmmm … but this ‘perchance to dream’ - your Hamlet’s far famed soliloquy? To be, or not to be: that is the question:  / Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer / The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, /Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, / And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep; And so forth. Stands up, yawns and stretches.

WS: Was there ever a man or a woman since the dawn of humanity who did not sometime have such a private conversation with him or herself as did my Prince of Denmark? Physical life: the single thing allotted to each of us at our worldly birth. At certain times it seemed more a curse than a gift. Who didn’t sometimes wonder: is not my life my own to maintain or to reject, either way of my own free will? He too arises as a hirsute creature, seemingly half human, half something else, obviously female, shambles out of the trees. She is short, bent of back, well shouldered, heavy legged, bare of foot. Her body is rough-clad in animal furs and her face is hairless, wide, flat and the colour of ancient oak. But those eyes! Shining jet with such an incurious intelligence! William waves his greeting then continues, for the moment content to ignore her presence. Robert, to conduct such a monologue with themselves; whether to go on fighting against their private sea of troubles or to fight against the Laws of Man and his self-writ Law of God.

RB: That Vale of Tears could and did at times seem so very desolate although there were heights on either flank so topped with joys. For myself there were times … However, although to give up one’s own life may have been the obvious choice there was always the possibility of things improving. Hope does spring eternal, as was truly said. And besides how could anyone alive know that what comes after death is not worse, perhaps far worse, than ‘soldiering on’, as they say. Those mythical flames, Will! All that church talk of hell and damnation!

WS: Of course, even though we could not know and still cannot. But you yourself had little public sympathy for the taking of one’s own life, witness your little verse, the one entitled ‘On a Suicide’:  He quotes. Earthed up, here lies an imp of hell, / Planted by Satan's dibble;(seed planting prodder)  /  Poor silly wretch, he's damned himself, /  To save the Lord the trouble. By the way, talking of hell I wonder whether Signor Dante is here with us?

RB: Dante? I hope so, but perhaps directed into his own Inferno. We must call to him, Will. Hemingway definitely is here although he took his own life as did his father before him. Ditto fine old Socrates. Enough. Let us introduce ourselves to our Earthly ancestor. He turns to the humanoid: Good day, lady. Who and how are you?

Neanderthal: Voice as the quiet growling of an anxious cat: I am Nukk and I am well. As well as is the rising of the sun and the falling of rain. I am better than my mother as I hope my daughters and my son will be better than I. Would you like to meet them, strangers, and also my male? They are not far.

WS: That we certainly would, mother. How kind.

Neanderthal: Kind? What is kind?

WS: Come here, mother. She comes close. He kisses her on her protruded mouth. She is astonished but evidently not frightened. Please lead on.

RB: You kiss her well for she is indeed your mother, William. Two thousand nine hundred and twenty generations removed.

WS: (Grins) And yours, but two thousand nine hundred and twenty nine generations since. They follow her into the forest, talking together and walking - or in her case shambling - single file along a well trodden track. Part of the way they are accompanied by a whirl of brightly coloured, chit-chattering butterflies. Once, a train of stag beetles larger than the rats of their own times scuttles out of their way before stopping to face them in salutation, impressive claws raised high in greeting. Skirting a freshwater lake they need to step over an eight metre leather-plated crocodile, her jaws held wide open to reveal all her dreadful ivory, her baleful eyes slow-lidding and unlidding. Soon enough they come to a cliff rising high above the palmate trees. In the base of the cliff is the mouth of a cave, woodsmoke trickling out.

Neanderthal: Come. She steps inside, calls out, Mhod, Shik, Gugg, Hrrr, Hiss, mother Shap; we have visitors.

RB: His eyesight adjusting itself to the gloom; Greetings good folk.

WS: And from I, good family.

The figures crouched or sitting around the flickering orange glow of a fire look up. One of them is considerably bulkier. He, obviously a male, is in the act of napping a shard from a knobbly flintstone. He nods his shaggy head, on his face what might have been a smile. The others growl soft their own hellos but show no other interest. There is one more, evidently a very old female lying in a corner of the cave on a bed of animal furs and fresh vegetation. Yet another, a younger woman is working on the smooth stone wall of the cave. In one hand she holds a flaming stake of wood, bound around with bulrushes. With the other she uses what seems to be a piece of charcoal to describe the outline of a wild animal, possibly an antelope in full flight.  

WS: Ah, a painter of caves at work. Very good if I may say although I am by no means an artist.

RB: No more I. But look! The girl has recreated a virtual menagerie of the creatures of the day. This one (he points) seems to be pursued by a small man with a spear.

Neanderthal male: Speaking as if from somewhere deep inside that cavernous chest, That one is myself, I am Mhod the hunter. And our daughter Hrrr is the one who makes pictures. Nukk, who may be these two?

Nukk: They are of our spirits from another time, my Mhod.

Mhod grunts, stirs the fire into renewed life with a sharp pointed stick: They come from our times gone by or do they live in times to come? They can speak?

WS: We can speak. You have heard, Mhod. We are - that is, we were in front of you. Many many seasons ahead. Many many of our fathers and sons. I am William and my friend is Robert. We are free here, free to alight anywhere and at any age within the world of our kind - we call mankind - without restriction or of any danger of hurt.

RB: On earth in our times we were poets.

Mhod: You should sit. The girls shuffle up as the two of them join the family, getting down to sit cross legged on palm fronds mats around the fire. Poets? But you are men? What kind of a hunter man is this ‘poet’?

RB: A different kind. A hunter of words and music and feelings, perhaps.

Mhod: Music we have from all around, from the ancients, from land, water and sky. Daughters, come! The three girls sitting alongside him get to their feet, begin to hum a kind of musical drone in time with the slow, ultra precise rhythm of their arms, hands and feet. Ignoring them, Mhod continues … Words? Talking with words needs no hunting. And feelings? What is that? He shakes his shaggy head. They are conscious of the immense thickness of his neck, body and limbs. But I ask, what did you hunt and kill to eat so as to fight and kill your enemy, so as to make your progeny? And how take care of your aged?

RB: I grew crops for myself and for others to eat. And I raised food animals, also for my own and for others. But it was forbidden to kill your enemies.

Mhod: Forbidden? By what forbidden? Crops? Animals ‘raised’? What, then, is this?

WS: Smiles. So many questions, my friend. Myself, in my youth I actually did hunt the wild deer and other small food animals. But I was then hunted in turn by the man who claimed to own all such for himself alone.

Mhod: What a time is this that you lived in! How can that be? I am a hunter. I go into the forest to kill for food and to protect myself from being killed. That is the nature. I hunt by my power and my skill and my courage as well as with the weaponry I have made. Turns around to pick up from behind a green leaved bough as thick around as Rob’s forearm. He snaps it across his upraised knee to feed the fire.

WS: Looks to Robert, much impressed. Yes, Rob. I have learned in centuries - later than my own or yours - that Neanderthal Man had skulls with greater brain capacity that ours. And that they had much greater physical strength. That much is now very evident.

Nukk: Do not worry, Mhod. We are their dream. In their dream no thing living is killed or hurt or is hunted. It is for them normal. Soon, whenever they wish, they shall leave us and we shall forget that they have ever been. This they have told me.

Mhod grunts. Hrrr comes to the fireside, examines them in the brighter light of the newly fed fire then returns, still in silence, to her drawing wall. The girls are still at their dance, that special weave of sibilance, rhythm and slow movement, their unwashed feet slip-slap-sliding across the cold stone floor.

RB:  Mhod, Nukk, know that my friend and I can go back in time to when we began, and forward to the moment that the last of our kind was no more. We know nothing about our world before, nor about what happened after our species died away.

Mhod: Died away? How is this?

RB: Evidently, Mhod, in many ways by our own hand perished.

WS: As your verse, Robert: For all his many joys and tears / Man pays his dues and all this / And yet how few the bounteous years  / As on his branch a man sits / Saws it away just for today / Whilst singing songs so jolly / Unheeding of another way;  / Oh reckless, feckless folly!

RB: Unpublished, that one, and unfinished. Chuckles. Unlike its author. But when it was writ I was thinking of the ganging dry of the seas and the melting of rocks in the sun.

WS: And I shall love thee still, my love, ‘til the sands of time have run.

Nukk: What is it with this, this drying and melting?

RB: When I wrote it I thought it nonsense. Shakes his head. No longer.

Mhod: This is all beyond understanding. And this ‘love’? Suddenly changes tack. You will take meat with us before you go?

WS: Thank you kindly sir, but we have no need for meat or drink.

Mhod: Then you are indeed not living. All things alive have to kill and eat others that live.

Nukk: Except the plants and the trees, Mhod. These live but eat no life.

Mhod growls, stabs at the fire with his stick, clearly unappreciative of being corrected by his woman. Hrrumph! Picks up the flintstone, re-commences his tap / crack spear-head manufacture.

Nukk: But I would like to know about this ‘love’.

RB: Ah yes, Nukk, as would we. We have written many, many times and many, many things about love but have learned so little about what it is or where or how it is to be found. But this we know; it is the one good reason just to be alive. As my good companion had it … Good shepherd, tell this youth what ‘tis to love. / It is to be all made of sighs and tears:- / It is to be all made of faith and service:- / It is to be all made of fantasy, / All made of passion, duty and observance; / All humbleness, all patience, and impatience; All purity, all trial, all obeisance …

WS: Grins. Love is a many splendoured thing - at least, according to Messrs Fain and Webster. There was a saying, I quote in the vernacular; It’ll draw you further than dynamite‘ll blow you. And according to this other good companion here: As down the stream they took their way,  / And through the flowery dale;  / His cheek to hers he oft’ did lay,  / And love always the tale:  /  With "Mary, when shall we return,  /  Such pleasure to renew?"  /  Says Mary- "Love, alike the burn, / I’ll always follow you."

Mother Shap: She is sitting up on her bed of fur and foliage, naked, her hairy body etched orange, scrawny sharp in the flutter of firelight. Yes, this have I heard, even from the animals.

RB: Yes? You hear the talk of animals, mother?

Mother Shap: Do not we all? Do not you, who say you know so much?

WS: Now we are able to talk with other than our kind. In life on earth we were not able so to do.  

Mother Shap: Then listen to me. I shall speak to you as I have once spoken with my little son. Mhod grunts, cracks off with violence a particularly long and especially sharp ponted flint. She continues: He who made this world allowed all creatures to talk without sound to those of their own kind. But He made only Humankind able to understand all others’ talk without sound. No other creatures can do so. In this way we hear without ears that which they are in silence saying to each other. Un this way we can prevail and survive above all creatures of the Earth of whatsoever more strength or cunning than ourselves. You understand?

WS: We understand, mother. At least we do now. He looks at Burns:  That explains so much, Rob. John’s unspoken parts of Paradise Lost and all.

RB: Yes, struck deaf and dumb to all others, expelled at last from this at first, The Garden of Eden! And for what?

WS: For our misuse of that great gift. The one that passeth all understanding. Sighs mightily. Time to move on, Rob? What say you?

RB: Yes. They stand up. Farewell friends, and thank you. Especially you, mother. Remember - or rather do not remember, for we are but stuff as dreams are made on, forgotten when we awake. 

They wander out of the cave into a forest floor of  dappled green and gold. Paradise re-found, they wander for an ever of happiness through their Garden of Eden. Here, Shakespeare and Burns meet the animals, talk with the animals, apologise to the animals for all the hurt, all the wrongs inflicted over the millennia by Mankind on them, the animals. Coming across a small brown, long-eared jump-runner, Shakespeare recites Burns’ famous The Wounded Hare

Inhuman man! curse on thy barb'rous art,
And blasted be thy murder-aiming eye;
May never pity soothe thee with a sigh,
Nor ever pleasure glad thy cruel heart!

Go live, poor wand'rer of the wood and field!
The bitter little that of life remains:
No more the thickening brakes and verdant plains
To thee a home, or food, or pastime yield.

Seek, mangled wretch, some place of wonted rest,
No more of rest, but now thy dying bed!
The sheltering rushes whistling o'er thy head,
The cold earth with thy bloody bosom prest.

Perhaps a mother's anguish adds its woe;
The playful pair crowd fondly by thy side;
Ah! helpless nurslings, who will now provide
That life a mother only can bestow!

Oft as by winding Nith I, musing, wait
The sober eve, or hail the cheerful dawn,
I'll miss thee sporting o'er the dewy lawn,
And curse the ruffian's aim, and mourn thy hapless fate.

RB: Nicely said, Will. Nicely said. Crouches to offer the hare a particularly fine stem of rye grass. Do you not agree, Mister Hare?

Hare: Takes the grass, hops, skips and jumps in a tight circle. Yes, he pipes. Oh yes.

WS: So shall we now move on? Where to next, my friend?

RB: Athens, say 400 BC. We shall speak there with one Socrates.

WS: Socrates; oh yes, there was a Man. Another who took his own life and yet is with us here. But we will meet with him in his life on Earth.

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