Living Stories on the Road: Satisfying my Muse on the White Cliffs of Dover

Hello again!  After a month, I have returned to contribute my weekly posts for the month of May.  Since last I posted, I have visited three countries, taken about two thousand photographs (don’t judge me), and encountered some literature in the process.

So, for the next four weeks, I want to take you on my adventure and point out the places where novels and plays and long ago tales happened to me.

I don’t generally go off on adventures simply because ‘thus and such’ happened in that spot or was written there or about that place.  Give me a castle and I’m pretty happy.  I can make up my own stories about it.  But in my two weeks of wandering, I had some dreams.  I had goals.  I had stories that were living in my head that I needed to find.  And find them, I did, and more besides.

My first stop was Dover.  When you think of literature and the cliffs and beaches of Dover (and you paid at least a little attention in English Lit), you are probably immediately going to think of Matthew Arnold’s poem ‘Dover Beach’.  Clearly, that must be what I was searching for.

Well, it wasn’t.  But I did find this:

The White Cliffs of Dover are fantastic, rising sheer and chalky and suddenly.  I was thrilled to have the chance to see them.  Dover Castle, grand and unyielding on the hills above the cliffs, is filled with shadows and echoes from centuries of political games and medieval grandeur, a first line of defense against enemy attack.  But what I wanted was, for once, not the castle – as much as I loved that castle.  It was the cliffs.  What I was searching for, you might be surprised to discover, was Shakespeare.

What has Shakespeare to do with the White Cliffs?  Perhaps you know the passage from King Lear:


There is a cliff whose
high and bending head
Looks fearfully in the confined deep
Bring me to the very brim of it,
And I’ll repair the misery thou dost bear
With something rich about me: from that place
I shall no leading need.

There is a hill called the Shakespeare Cliff that is supposed to be the one described by Gloucester in these lines.  This is the famous and most distinctive connection between Dover and Shakespeare.

So, of course, I was looking for King Lear!

Actually, no, I wasn’t.  The scene that I wanted to experience as I walked along the cliffs was not from King Lear, but from Henry V.  And it was, I freely admit, from a film version and not from the play at all.

If you have not seen Kenneth Branagh’s rendition of Henry V, you have missed out on a spectular film.  When I read the play, I hear the voices of those actors, particularly the bard-like voice of one Sir Derek Jacobi (just listen to him speak the first bit ‘O! for a Muse of fire!’ and you will be captivated.  Or you should be.)

Those of you who have seen it are now nodding and smiling knowingly.   You know where I’m going with this, don’t you?

Jacobi, as the Chorus, walks along the cliffs – these cliffs – , chilled and wind-lashed as he delivers his lines…

For now sits Expectation in the air,
  And hides a sword from hilts unto the point
  With crowns imperial, crowns and coronets,
  Promised to Harry and his followers.

This scene, for whatever reasons, stands out in my mind.  It is strange since the cliffs are not actually in the play itself.  But because of Jacobi, they are in the play when I read it.  After all, Shakespeare’s Chorus also advises us in the Prologue:

For ’tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings,
Carry them here and there; jumping o’er times,
Turning the accomplishment of many years
Into an hour-glass: for the which supply,
Admit me Chorus to this history;
Who prologue-like your humble patience pray,
Gently to hear, kindly to judge, our play.

A play is a visual art, not just a literary one, and when we read the words or watch on a small stage, we are kindly requested by the playwright to build in our minds the armies and castles and battlefields (and cliffs!) to see the story as it is meant to be seen.  When I read a book, a really good one, I want to see it in my head, hear the voices, watch the characters play out their roles as if on a massive stage. That’s how I get to know a story.

So yes, the White Cliffs, for me, are the stage for the dramatic prologue of Act II in Henry V, and I don’t think Shakespeare would find fault with my imagination.

I climbed those cliffs, stole a pebble as a souvenir, and I will never be able watch that scene in Branagh’s film without a silly grin on my face.

I was there.

*Next week: From Dover to Canterbury, I became a pilgrim twice over.
*For more pictures: My Travel Blog


17 thoughts on “Living Stories on the Road: Satisfying my Muse on the White Cliffs of Dover

  1. Great post! Love the pictures of the cliffs as well as the shakespeare references! It’s hard to see so many parts of england that Shakespeare talked about without thinking of his plays! And i have to agree… no one does shakespeare like brannagh! His portrayal of Iago in Othello is one of my favorite rolls of all time!

    Now i’m on a shakespeare kick:

    I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
    Straining upon the start. The game’s afoot:
    Follow your spirit, and upon this charge
    Cry ‘God for Harry, England, and Saint George!’

  2. “A play is a visual art, not just a literary one, and when we read the words or watch on a small stage, we are kindly requested by the playwright to build in our minds the armies and castles and battlefields (and cliffs!) to see the story as it is meant to be seen.”

    I disagree. I’m not saying that can’t happen or be nice if it does, but I think that’s really missing the point of plays.

  3. Your post was a nice mini-vacation before I head into the day’s schedule. This blog techno thing becomes a gift then. I’ll look forward to reading the next installment. You do a great Shakespearean-pose, by the way!

  4. Hmmm. Well, Shakespeare agrees with Melissa.

    Let us, the ciphers to this great account
    On your imaginary forces work.
    Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts.
    Into a thousand parts divide one man
    And make imaginary puissance.
    Think, when we talk of horses, that you see them
    Printing their proud hooves i’the receiving earth

    And here ensue the lines she quoted: “For ’tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings.”

    1. In all fairness, not everyone uses his or her imagination when reading or even when watching a play to deck out the scene. With a book, I think it’s really a matter of personal reading style. With a play, though, I do believe that we are often asked to see more than is before us. If you cannot or prefer not to do so, that’s not going to take away the meaning and value of the play. But I do think that many a playmaker would support it. Just my opinion.

      1. Many might (I don’t know anywhere near exact percentages as I haven’t seen polling data), but I think it’s clear that if you wrote a play, you would, whereas if I wrote a play that would never even occur to me. I’d expect the audience to accept that certain things are happening/exist, but as for actually “seeing” it – no.

        I’d also wonder if the percentages might have shifted somewhat with the advent of movies.

      2. Actually, I think it would be very interesting to see if playwrights post-film making era consciously shift away from that sort of thinking, perhaps to create a play that deliberately demands less visual and more audio -attention. However, I would imagination (just my thought) that pre-film, the play would have been what film is for us today and because fewer ‘special effects’ were available, more imaginative contributions were expected of the audience, if possible.

      3. That was my thought, yeah (though still shift and not necessarily an absolute thing as in your post).

        (And, as usual, I hate whatever stupid layout this is that won’t allow sufficient threaded comments.)

        1. I think I can change it, actually…. I believe the goal was to avoid long columns of two or three words. But changing it to five would make more sense.

          And your point is duly noted. I had you in mind when I wrote it and considered a caveat, but wanted to keep things short and simple. My mistake. 🙂

          1. I did note the one caveat for books and was proud of you. Then I saw the lack of one with plays and had to remind myself about baby steps. 😛

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