The Famous Tragedy of the Queen of Cornwall by Thomas Hardy.

The Famous Tragedy of the Queen of Cornwall is, judging by Goodreads, a very under-read Thomas Hardy play - it only has 6 ratings (his novel Tess of the D'Urbervilles for example has 190,358). But Thomas Hardy is known best for his novels and his poetry, so it seems that reading his plays is just a matter of curiosity. Nevertheless I'd say I was well rewarded. 

The play was published in 1923, and the Queen of Cornwall refers to Iseult the Fair, the wife of Mark of Cornwall and the lover of Sir Tristan. This is the third time I've read a version of the 'Tristan and Iseult' myth (I've read Strassburg's Tristan, 13th Century, and Béroul's The Romance of Tristan, 12th Century). It begins with a prologue by Merlin:


Enter Mᴇʀʟɪɴ, a phantasmal figure with a white wand. The room is darkened: a blue light may be thrown on Merlin.


I come, at your persuasive call,
To raise up in this modern hall
A tragedy of dire duresse
That vexed the Land of Lyonnesse: -
Scenes, with their passions, hopes, and fears
Sunk into shade these thousand years;
To set, in ghostly grave array,
     Their blitheness, blood, and tears,
Feats, ardours, as if rife to-day
     Before men's eyes and ears.

The tale has travelled far and wide: -
Yea, that King Mark, to fetch his bride,
Sent Tristram; then that he and she
Quaffed a love-potion witlessly
While homeward bound. Hence that the King
     Wedded one heart-aflame
For Tristram! He, in dark despair,
Roved recklessly, and wived everywhere
     One of his mistress' name.

I saw these times I represent,
Watched, gauged them as they came and went,
Being ageless, deathless! And those two
Fair women - namesakes - well I knew!
Judge them not harshly in a love
     Whose hold on them was strong;
Sorrow therein they tasted of,
     And deeply, and too long!

Tristan and Isolde with the Potion 
by John William Waterhouse (1916).
Hardy tells the story in a single act, and, like the Ancient Greek plays, he has a chorus, or, as they're called in this play, Chanters - 'Shades of Dead Old Cornish Men' and 'Shades of Dead Cornish Women'. The action takes place at Tintagel, and the action that occupies much of Béroul and Strassburg's versions has already happened: Iseult and Tristram, already in Cornwall, have taken the love potion and are in love with each other. Iseult has gone to Brittany to see Tristram and his wife, Iseult of the White Hands, falsely tells her that he's died. She has returned home and believes her husband is unaware of her affair, not realising he has been informed. Tristram, alive, recovers from his illness and goes to Cornwall where he tells her he has been forced into marrying Iseult of the White Hands. She soon arrives and sees her husband with his lover, and she meets Queen Iseult. When King Mark discovers Tristram he kills him, and using the same knife Queen Iseult kills Mark then commits suicide by throwing herself off a cliff.

As with many of Hardy's novels (I'm thinking particularly of Jude the Obscure) the theme of mismatched marriages and destiny. As with other Hardy characters, Tristram and Iseult were thrown together despite the circumstances being entirely wrong, and both were destined to suffer marriages that made them unhappy and were punished for following their hearts. It's an odd little play, the medieval setting was somewhat unexpected, yet the Greek-like structure and those familiar ideas behind it made the 'Tristan and Iseult' myth very much Hardy's.

The Famous Tragedy of the Queen of Cornwall was my 32nd title for the Deal Me In Challenge. Next week: Vera by Oscar Wilde.


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