Thursday, 6 January 2011

I, Claudius and Claudius the God

I was so enjoying the Radio 4 adaptation of one of my favourite English novels, I, Claudius, thinking that Derek Jacobi was magnificent as Augustus and Tom Goodman-Hill brilliant as Claudius. Perhaps it should have ended, however, as the book effectively does, with episode 5 when, in fulfilment of the sibyl's prophecy, Claudius gains the "gift that all desire but he."

To tack on to the end of it the entire subject matter of Claudius the God (to my mind, a masterpiece in its own right), summarising it in a single episode, is rather akin to staging an abridged version of Henry V (minus its greatest speech) as Act 6 of Henry IV, Part 2. Missing is all the wonderful humour of the correspondence between Claudius and Herod Agrippa, under the pseudonyms of "Marmoset" and "Brigand." Missing, too, is Claudius's insistence, in his later life, on playing the role of "King Log" and, with it, the true significance of the murder (covered all too briefly in the adaptation) of the prostitute, Calpurnia, who has been Claudius's most loyal friend throughout his adult life. For me, his failure (as the most powerful man on Earth) to lift a little finger to protect her marks the moment at which the loss of his humanity becomes manifest. Perhaps that's the whole point: the gods are inhuman, and he is now one of them. But all of this is lost in the adaptation.

But perhaps it's unfair to blame Radio 4 (certainly I don't blame Robin Brooks): somehow these two great books seem to have become elided in the popular understanding, and this has been very much at the expense of the second, unfairly so, I think.

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