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August 6 : On Degenerate Nobles  

To prepare for seeing The Tempest with Stephen Dillaine at the Old Vic on Saturday, directed by Sam Mendes, I’m reading Frank Kermode’s introduction to the Arden Shakespeare edition (1954). As usual with Kermode, who was 35 at the time, it’s shows his brilliance but more dense and plodding; later on, and so evident in his anthology of essays, Pieces of My Mind: Writings 1958-2002 (2003), his confidence allows his prose to loosen up and sing; in this introduction it’s like his reading the music.

I came across something I thought you’d like: an opinion on character and privilege and how the noble ought to very good, but when he is bad he is very bad; that it is his fate to be served strong food of divine or devilish extreme. The quote is in reference to Antonio the “degenerate nobleman”, by Owen Felltham (1602-1668):

Earth hath not any thing more glorious than ancient nobility, when it is found with virtue. What barbarous mind will not reverence than blood, which hath untainted run through so large a succession of generations? Besides, virtue adds a new splendour, which together with the honour of his house, challengeth a respect from all. But bad greatness is nothing but the vigour of vice, having both mind and means to be uncontrollably lewd. A debauched son of a noble family is one of the intolerable burdens of the earth, and as hateful a thing as hell; for all know he hath had both example and precept flowing in his education; both which are powerful enough to obliterate a native illness; yet these in him are but auxiliaries to his shame, that, with the brightness of his ancestors, make his own darkness more palpable.*


* Resolves Divine Moral and Political, CXCIII, (1623?), ed. of 1840, p. 305.