Comforted by Wolves

The ending of the cult film ‘Withnail and I’ ( a 1987 black comedy written and directed by Bruce Robinson) came up in our discussions at Cumberland Lodge this weekend after my talk on wolves and wolf children. This was in response to my use of the Ted Hughes poem ‘Life after Death’ (Birthday Letters, 1998) in which the poet and his children are comforted by the sound of wolves from his Chalk Farm home following the death of his wife Sylvia Plath:

  • We were comforted by wolves.
    Under that February moon and the moon of March
    The Zoo had come close.
    And in spite of the city
    Wolves consoled us. Two or three times each night
    For minutes on end
    They sang. They had found where we lay.
    And the dingos, and the Brazilian-maned wolves –
    All lifted their voices together
    With the grey Northern pack (l.1-10).

The final soliloquy in the film is delivered to the same wolves at London Zoo. It is one of the most powerful uses of Shakespeare in film ever I think. The monologue is spoken in the play by Prince Hamlet to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in Act II, Scene ii. Rather than appearing in blank verse, the typical mode of composition in Shakespeare plays, the speech appears in perfect prose:

I have of late (but wherefore I know not), lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises; and indeed, it goes so heavily with my disposition; that this goodly frame the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy the air, look you, this brave o’er hanging firmament, this majestical roof, fretted with golden fire: why, it appeareth no other thing to me, than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours. What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an Angel! in apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world! The paragon of animals! And yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me; no, nor Woman neither…

I have previously blogged about Shakespeares Irish werewolves  and the gothspeare so maybe there is a theme here. Both soliloquy and poem are profoundly moving and have as their central concept mankind’s place in the world and the notion of our returning again to dust. The wolves are not present as the harbingers of death however, they seem instead to offer consolation or maybe to add their own silent commentary on ‘what a piece of work is a man’.

About Lucy Northenra

Senior Lecturer in Literature, University of Hertfordshire
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2 Responses to Comforted by Wolves

  1. Jon Garrad says:

    I blubbered the first time I saw the ending of that film, and it still makes my heart clench up a little every time. It’s the perfect capstone on the tragedy of Withnail – the last thing you see is confirmation that for all his flaws, the man _can_ act, and only the wolves will know. Beautifully composed. Wish Robinson and/or Grant hadn’t mauled the lines about though: “how like an Angel” is cut adrift, loses meaning, and it’s not the only one. Perhaps that’s the point – even in his vindication Withnail can’t get it quite right.

  2. Thanks for responding. Yes, I still find it difficult to watch but I am simultaneously mesmerised by it. I think the flawed delivery is in direct sympathy with the sentiment of the piece (coming to nothing despite the potential for greatness and the world weariness or disenchantment that comes with that). There is irony in the fact that he is an alcoholic failed actor addressing a captive non human audience yet he still manages to deliver the lines with absolute passion as if he were playing the Dane in a glitzy London theatre. The unresponsive wolves in the place of the appreciate theatre goers are similarly thwarted due to their treatment by that ‘piece of work’ man. I think ‘how like an angel’ still resonates and has pathos – like you say the way some of the lines are swallowed only adds to the increasing sense of irony and inevitability. Iconic yes.

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