Sunday Sonnet – 17 July 2016

My particular madness is the belief that Shakespeare’s sonnets are pertinent to our 21st century lives.  The other night I watched an actor read 40 of these sonnets, accompanied by two lutes and a recorder.  That actor gave me an idea.  Why can’t I do this?  I’m no trained Shakespearean actor and I don’t have a lute.  But I do believe Shakespeare wrote for all us, and wouldn’t mind a fool like me sharing what I love most.  Aloud. 

Let’s start with one of the early ‘Young Man’ Sonnets, Number 3.  As a young man, I was drawn to this one because of its sexual farming metaphor, and in particular to its great pun on husbandry. As an older man, I recognize the wisdom of its warning.   

3

Look in thy glass and tell the face thou viewest

Now is the time that face should form another;

Whose fresh repair if now thou not renewest,

Thou dost beguile the world, unbless some mother.

For where is she so fair whose uneared womb

Disdains the tillage of thy husbandry?

Or who is he so fond will be the tomb

Of his self-love, to stop posterity?

Thou art thy mother’s glass and she in thee

Calls back the lovely April of her prime;

So thou through windows of thine age shalt see,

Despite of wrinkles, this thy golden time.

   But if thou live, remembered not to be,

   Die single and thine image dies with thee.

400th Anniversary of Shakespeare’s Death

william-shakespeare

Shakespeare has become my religion.

Back in 1976, between my junior and senior years of high school, my family was uprooted to a new town because my father needed work. I was enrolled into a new high school at midsummer by a well-meaning principal who knew nothing about me and not much about his school’s curriculum. A mediocre student was thrown into Mrs. Kelley’s Honors English. Mrs. Kelly introduced me to two new couples: Romeo and Juliet, and the Macbeths. The epitome of Romantic Love dashed with a dagger and dram of poison. And the portrait of a happy marriage, mired in blood, that still inspires our entertainment industry today–thank you Robin Wright and Kevin Spacey.

In college, after I flunked out of Engineering, I gravitated back to where the long dead finger of Shakespeare had pointed me a couple years earlier: Theatre and Literature. In college I grew to love Shakespeare, ‘The Bard’, under the tutelage of some great minds: Doctors Paul and Sommer. Despite their best efforts, I graduated with a bachelor’s, but not much else. I would become no professor of literature, and no Kenneth Branagh.

As Shakespeare himself wrote, ‘with eyes severe and beard of formal cut’, I labored in all kinds of business, trying to find my way. Decades later, I’ve come back to the beginning. Beyond trying to write a novel about Shakespeare, I’ve grown to realize that Shakespeare has become my religion.  

He shapes and guides everything I write, promote and believe: Art, Love, Work, Daily Life, Politics, Society, Imagination and Hope. His works delve into what it means to be human, provide a guide of conduct, a code of ethics, all lessons to be learned, but presented lavishly in the most eloquent and beautiful language ever put to English.

  • What does human love mean and what is its importance? A seeming infinite list of plays, poems and characters explore this, but my favorite is Sonnet 116 (quoted at the end of this blog)
  • Romantic Love. True Love is not Romantic mush, but a meeting of minds, rooted in reality, nurtured with mutual respect, smart, tender but unmoving. See Beatrice and Benedict, from Much Ado About Nothing.
  • Open Love. Love between two people is not subject to anyone else’s bigoted restrictions. See The Sonnets. The (male) Poet and the Young Man; The Poet and the Dark Lady.
  • Women are the equal of Men. Shakespeare wrote in a society where women were considered property; yet by the end of his career what did he create? A long list of diverse and powerful women: Juliet, Beatrice, Lady Macbeth, Rosalind, Cordelia, Ophelia, Portia, Viola, Cleopatra just to name a few.
  • People are equal regardless of race. Elizabethans were violently and openly racist, and yet Shakespeare daringly created the tragic Othello.
  • Power corrupts. The examples seem infinite. Almost every History play teaches this.
  • The Divine Right of Kings. It’s a sham. This was especially tricky, since Shakespeare lived in a monarchy, and that Monarch, Elizabeth, liked Shakespeare’s plays. But his genius was that he could illustrate what may seem obvious to us in the most sly ways. And not all his History plays took the monarch down; in some the monarch succeeded, but that leader always exhibited what all good political leaders should embody: intelligence, grace, mercy, empathy, strength, wit and self sacrifice. This is the measure we should use today too.
  • War is vile. See any of his History plays, and most his Tragedies.
  • There’s not a lot religion in Shakespeare’s plays or poetry. By and large he avoided references to it or talking much about it. Perhaps a good practice to follow today in daily life and in our politics?
  • Life is Unfair. Love while you can, life is capricious. Shakespeare lived in plague times, and lost his own son, Hamnet, at age 11. Many of Shakespeare’s Histories and most of his Tragedies end with a stage strewn in blood. It’s a lesson.
  • Laughter is essential to life. His great Comedies and clowns seem almost infinite in their wit and joy.
  • Often the Fool is the Wisest. Certainly this is true in life, as was so often true in his plays. The best Fool? See King Lear.
  • Revenge is not the way to go. It’s better to forgive. See Hamlet.
  • Mental illness and suicide are things. See Ophelia and Hamlet. This was a particularly wild notion in Elizabethan times. But Shakespeare could see it, and was able to show it on stage.
  • Forgive, cast away your power and strive for grace. Prospero, from one of Shakespeare’s last plays.
  • Shakespeare’s plays and poetry are a treasure trove of words and phrases first used in English, many of which are still in use today, including but not limited to:
    • Brave New World
    • Break the ice
    • Cold comfort
    • Dead as a doornail
    • Eaten out of house and home
    • Faint-hearted
    • For goodness’ sake
    • Full circle
    • Good riddance
    • Heart of gold
    • Kill with kindness
    • Laughing stock
    • Love is blind
    • Milk of human kindness
    • My heart on my sleeve
    • One fell swoop
    • Wild goose chase

And don’t forget, Shakespeare invented the Knock-knock joke!

Though we celebrate the anniversary of his death today, 23 April is also traditionally considered Shakespeare’s birthday, the day calculated back from his day of christening.

Happy Birthday, William Shakespeare, and thank you for the immense contribution to life, language and love.

Sonnet 116

Let me not to the marriage of true minds  

Admit impediments. Love is not love  

Which alters when it alteration finds,  

Or bends with the remover to remove:  

O, no! it is an ever-fixed mark,

That looks on tempests and is never shaken;  

It is the star to every wandering bark,  

Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.  

Love ’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks  

Within his bending sickle’s compass come;

Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,  

But bears it out even to the edge of doom.  

If this be error, and upon me prov’d,  

I never writ, nor no man ever lov’d.

 

 

Sunday Sonnet – 28 August 2016

Sonnet 15

I love Sonnet 15. It marks a turn in Shakespeare’s great sequence of 154 sonnets. The poet turns from trying to convince the Young Man that he needs to father a child in order to preserve his beauty. You see, there’s another way to preserve the Young Man’s beauty: the Poet’s power of verse! On this point the Poet was most certainly correct.  Over four hundred years later we’re still reading these words, but have no idea if the Young Man’s line survived or not. There’s even doubt about who the Young Man was.

Note the lovely imagery throughout, and the exquisite multilayered play on words in the last line.

15

When I consider every thing that grows
Holds in perfection but a little moment,
That this huge stage presenteth nought but shows
Whereon the stars in secret influence comment;
When I perceive that men as plants increase,
Cheered and cheque’d even by the self-same sky,
Vaunt in their youthful sap, at height decrease,
And wear their brave state out of memory;
Then the conceit of this inconstant stay
Sets you most rich in youth before my sight,
Where wasteful Time debateth with Decay,
To change your day of youth to sullied night;
And all in war with Time for love of you,
As he takes from you, I engraft you new.

 

Sunday Sonnet – 21 August 2016

Sonnet 14

For the first dozen or so of Shakespeare’s amazing sonnet sequence of 154 poems, the Poet’s been trying to get the Young Man to marry a woman and reproduce to preserve his beauty. But now, by Sonnet 14, things start changing. Slowly but surely, the Poet is falling in love with the Young Man. In the Elizabethan era, this is wild and dangerous stuff!

It starts when the Poet likens the beautiful Young Man’s eyes to stars–a common poetic image nowadays. Not unlike the dreamy infatuation between young lovers we see everywhere. But what’s so cool here is that on its surface, the Poet seems to be talking about the Young Man’s eyes, he’s really revealing himself: Line 9 starts to spells it out: ‘But from thine eyes my knowledge I derive.’ Reason or good sense be damned, the Poet derives real truth and beauty from the eyes of the person he’s become infatuated with.  We’ve all seen that before, haven’t we? And most of us have lived it.

14

Not from the stars do I my judgment pluck;
And yet methinks I have astronomy,
But not to tell of good or evil luck,
Of plagues, of dearths, or seasons’ quality;
Nor can I fortune to brief minutes tell,
Pointing to each his thunder, rain and wind,
Or say with princes if it shall go well,
By oft predict that I in heaven find:
But from thine eyes my knowledge I derive,
And, constant stars, in them I read such art
As truth and beauty shall together thrive,
If from thyself to store thou wouldst convert;
Or else of thee this I prognosticate:
Thy end is truth’s and beauty’s doom and date.

 

Sunday Sonnet – 14 August 2016

Sonnet 12

Not all of Shakespeare’s 154 Sonnets are written to the same lovers or for the same reasons, and their topics and tenors vary. But the overriding arc of the entire sonnet sequence is, I’d say, the destructive power of Time. This obsession over Time first comes to a fore in a big way in number 12, a powerful and beautiful sonnet. Written to the Young Man, the Poet warns him that time will destroy him and any memory of his beauty…if he doesn’t reproduce! Note the striking and evocative imagery of Nature’s destructive cycle–and how the progression of the seasons dovetails with the image of an aging human face. I suppose my aging face is as good an example as any.

12

When I do count the clock that tells the time,
And see the brave day sunk in hideous night;
When I behold the violet past prime,
And sable curls all silver’d o’er with white;
When lofty trees I see barren of leaves
Which erst from heat did canopy the herd,
And summer’s green all girded up in sheaves
Borne on the bier with white and bristly beard,
Then of thy beauty do I question make,
That thou among the wastes of time must go,
Since sweets and beauties do themselves forsake
And die as fast as they see others grow;
And nothing ‘gainst Time’s scythe can make defence
Save breed, to brave him when he takes thee hence.

Sunday Sonnet – 7 August 2016

Sonnet 8

Two of Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets use music as their central metaphor: the one I’m about to read, and one of the later Dark Lady sonnets, which I promise to read some other day.

This one uses the idea of a single note of music and how, when combined into a chord makes even more beautiful music. The Poet is trying to a convince the Young Man, who’s a bachelor–a single note–to marry and make a family–a chord. The argument sounds ridiculous, but the logical steps of the argument build a perfect metaphor, the beauty of the verse with its musical rhythm are a progression not unlike a song, and Shakespeare’s evident knowledge and love of music, are plainly evident. Was there no end to Shakespeare’s many areas of expertise?

I have no sense of rhythm, and so my reading butchers that aspect of this verse: but I love this sonnet for its creative analogy and the questions it asks. What kind of music filled Shakespeare’s life? Historians have some ideas, but we’ll never know for certain.  

8

Music to hear, why hear’st thou music sadly?

Sweets with sweets war not, joy delights in joy:

Why lov’st thou that which thou receiv’st not gladly,

Or else receiv’st with pleasure thine annoy?

If the true concord of well-tuned sounds,

By unions married, do offend thine ear,

They do but sweetly chide thee, who confounds

In singleness the parts that thou shouldst bear.

Mark how one string, sweet husband to another,

Strikes each in each by mutual ordering;

Resembling sire and child and happy mother,

Who, all in one, one pleasing note do sing:

   Whose speechless song being many, seeming one,

   Sings this to thee: ‘Thou single wilt prove none.’

 

Sunday Sonnet – ‘Winter is Coming’

 

Sonnet 5 photo

Shakespeare’s Sonnet Number 5 is from early in the sequence of verses written to the Young Man.  The Poet is still trying to convince the Young Man to marry and reproduce, thereby preserving his beauty.  Here the Bard compares that beauty to the most lovely things of summer, flowers.  But flowers are transient. Winter destroys all blossoms, in the same way Time destroys youthful beauty.  Sometimes though, one aspect of a flower’s beauty can be saved. The Elizabethan didn’t have cameras to capture images, and so in Shakespeare’s time the only way to preserve any essence of a blossom was to distill it into perfume.

 

5

Those hours, that with gentle work did frame

The lovely gaze where every eye doth dwell,

Will play the tyrants to the very same

And that unfair which fairly doth excel;

For never-resting time leads summer on

To hideous winter, and confounds him there;

Sap checked with frost, and lusty leaves quite gone,

Beauty o’er-snowed and bareness every where:

Then were not summer’s distillation left,

A liquid prisoner pent in walls of glass,

Beauty’s effect with beauty were bereft,

Nor it, nor no remembrance what it was:

   But flowers distilled, though they with winter meet,

   Leese but their show; their substance still lives sweet.

 

Sunday Sonnet – 24 July 2016

Sonnet 116 - 1

Sonnet 116 epitomizes why Shakespeare is my religion. Other books inspirit us to love, but what is love? This amazing Sonnet, perhaps Shakespeare’s greatest, describes the constancy, depth and beauty of love, and how true love may extend its arc over the length of a entire life. This one I dedicate to Mary, whose birthday is this weekend.  

116

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come:
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

–William Shakespeare

 

 

Shakespeare on War – Memorial Day 2016

Memorial day battle

Shakespeare, as far as we know, never served in any military capacity, was never forcibly pressed into service (which was how Elizabethan England filled its military ranks), yet he seems to know something of it. Many of his plays contain characters, high and low, connected to military action, from men in the field to the Kings who order those men to their deaths. During Shakespeare’s lifetime, Queen Elizabeth conducted war with Spain and the poor Irish people, and these wars lasted years. The subject of war must’ve been common talk, and many people must’ve lost loved ones in the wars.

I consider Shakespeare’s works the heart and soul of Western morality, and The Bard’s approach to war is no different. Ambitious warmongers fill his plays, some coming to bad ends (the Richards, the Macbeths), some glorified (Henry V), and some just outright mocked (Falstaff). A majority are treated with profound authorial ambivalence, left to the reader (or spectator) to decide for themselves.

This latter category I consider the most instructive. There are many examples to choose from in Shakespeare. In recognition of Memorial Day here in America, where we honor our fallen soldiers, I’d like to highlight a passage from Julius Caesar, where Caesar and his wife Calpurnia wax poetic about war, and the difference between cowardice and valor.

CALPURNIA.

Caesar, I never stood on ceremonies,

Yet now they fright me. There is one within,

Besides the things that we have heard and seen,

Recounts most horrid sights seen by the watch.

A lioness hath whelped in the streets;

And graves have yawn’d, and yielded up their dead;

Fierce fiery warriors fight upon the clouds,

In ranks and squadrons and right form of war,

Which drizzled blood upon the Capitol;

The noise of battle hurtled in the air,

Horses did neigh, and dying men did groan;

And ghosts did shriek and squeal about the streets.

O Caesar,these things are beyond all use,

And I do fear them!

CAESAR.

What can be avoided

Whose end is purposed by the mighty gods?

Yet Caesar shall go forth; for these predictions

Are to the world in general as to Caesar.

CALPURNIA.

When beggars die, there are no comets seen;

The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes.

CAESAR.

Cowards die many times before their deaths;

The valiant never taste of death but once.

Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,

It seems to me most strange that men should fear;

Seeing that death, a necessary end,

Will come when it will come.—

Julius Caesar, Act II Scene ii

Caesar uses death both as a metaphor and literally. ‘Cowards die many times before their deaths; The valiant never taste of death but once.’ A noble sentiment. I suspect that many of those we consider valiant–many of those who died–were terrified: but the valiant conquer their fears, the cowards don’t. And there is Shakespeare’s use of death as a metaphor: each time the coward suffers under the failure of his own fear, a small piece of him dies.

Crucial to this scene is Calpurnia’s more feminine perspective about the violence of war: her soaring and terrifying description of battle. If Shakespeare wasn’t in battle, he certainly must’ve read of it, or heard of it from those who had suffered it first hand. Or, miraculously, applied his own brilliant and empathetic imagination:  

‘Fierce fiery warriors fight upon the clouds,

In ranks and squadrons and right form of war,

Which drizzled blood upon the Capitol;

The noise of battle hurtled in the air,

Horses did neigh, and dying men did groan;

And ghosts did shriek and squeal about the streets.’

In sad remembrance to all of those who have fallen in defense of our country. I can never know what it must be like, and certainly don’t have the imagination of Shakespeare to recreate it. To those who suffered it, and died for our country, honor, awe and profound sadness.

The image is from Kenneth Branagh’s film version of Henry V, here showing men dying for their country at the Battle of Agincourt. Today we honor our own fallen. In 600 years we haven’t learned much, have we?

 

Did Shakespeare Have a Mom? – 08 May 2016

BIRTH

Of course he did. Her name was Mary Arden, the daughter of a wealthy farmer. We know hardly anything about Mary Arden, except that Shakespeare decided to honor his maternal family’s name by setting his play, As You Like It, in the ‘Forests of Arden’.

Interestingly enough, As You Like It contains one of the strongest and most progressive female characters in all of Shakespeare’s plays, Rosalind. Not only is she still extraordinary today, in Shakespeare’s time she would’ve been almost unrecognizable in a world where women were considered property, and rarely played any role in society outside of mothers, servants or prostitutes (the singular exception of Queen being duly noted). I’m not suggesting Shakespeare based Rosalind on his mother, there’s absolutely no evidence of that. But I think it’s neat that Rosalind tromped about in the Forests of Arden.

Mary Arden most definitely fulfilled the role of mother. She bore her husband John Shakespeare eight children, and most certainly suffered her share of tragedy: Will Shakespeare had seven siblings, yet three of them died either in infancy or childhood. Many of the extended Arden family were Catholic, though we really don’t know about Mary herself or her husband. And Will Shakespeare? He kept his religious beliefs–if he even had any–wisely secret.

What impact did this virtually unknown woman have on the Bard of Avon? It’s hard to ever know, but we do know this: the role of mothers don’t appear often in Shakespeare’s plays. Too much shouldn’t be read into this, for in Shakespeare’s times, women weren’t allowed to perform on stage. Shakespeare designed his plays for an existing company of actors, and he had to make certain he had boy actors for every very female role.

Gertrude, the mother in Hamlet, isn’t the world’s greatest mom. Lady Macbeth, the supreme villainess, muses that she probably wouldn’t have made a great mother. So many of the other scintillating females in Shakespeare’s plays are not mothers or, if they are, never really address the issue. But getting boys to play moms? That would be tough.

There is, however, one famous monologue delivered by a mother in grief. Shakespeare must’ve had an extraordinary lad in his troupe to perform this. I hate to end this blog–on Mother’s Day–on a negative note. But in writing this speech, Shakespeare shows he strived to reveal a mother’s love, and the kind of raging grief the deaths of sons could elicit. It’s a powerful speech, words that could only ever come from the heart of a Mother.

From Richard III, here is Queen Margaret’s magnificent speech:

QUEEN MARGARET:

If ancient sorrow be most reverent,

Give mine the benefit of seniory

And let my griefs frown on the upper hand.

If sorrow can admit society,

Tell over your woes again by viewing mine.

I had an Edward, till a Richard killed him;

I had a Harry, till a Richard killed him:

Thou hadst an Edward, till a Richard killed him;

Thou hadst a Richard, till a Richard killed him.

Thou hadst a Clarence too, and Richard killed him.

From forth the kennel of thy womb hath crept

A hellhound that doth hunt us all to death:

That dog, that had his teeth before his eyes,

To worry lambs and lap their gentle blood,

That foul defacer of God’s handiwork,

That excellent grand tyrant of the earth

That reigns in gallèd eyes of weeping souls,

Thy womb let loose to chase us to our graves.

O upright, just, and true-disposing God,

How do I thank thee that this carnal cur

Preys on the issue of his mother’s body

And makes her pew-fellow with others’ moan!

Bear with me! I am hungry for revenge,

And now I cloy me with beholding it.

Thy Edward he is dead, that killed my Edward;

Thy other Edward dead, to quit my Edward;

Young York he is but boot, because both they

Matched not the high perfection of my loss.

Thy Clarence he is dead that stabbed my Edward,

And the beholders of this frantic play,

Th’ adulterate Hastings, Rivers, Vaughan, Grey,

Untimely smoth’red in their dusky graves.

Richard yet lives, hell’s black intelligencer;

Only reserved their factor to buy souls

And send them thither. But at hand, at hand,

Ensues his piteous and unpitied end.

Earth gapes, hell burns, fiends roar, saints pray,

To have him suddenly conveyed from hence.

Cancel his bond of life, dear God, I pray,

That I may live and say, ‘The dog is dead.’

I called thee once vain flourish of my fortune;

I called thee then poor shadow, painted queen,

The presentation of but what I was,

The flattering index of a direful pageant,

One heaved a-high to be hurled down below,

A mother only mocked with two fair babes,

A dream of what thou wast, a garish flag,

To be the aim of every dangerous shot;

A sign of dignity, a breath, a bubble,

A queen in jest, only to fill the scene.

Where is thy husband now? Where be thy brothers?

Where be thy two sons? Wherein dost thou joy?

Who sues and kneels and says, ‘God save the queen’?

Where be the bending peers that flatterèd thee?

Where be the thronging troops that followèd thee?

Decline all this, and see what now thou art:

For happy wife, a most distressèd widow;

For joyful mother, one that wails the name;

For one being sued to, one that humbly sues;

For queen, a very caitiff crowned with care;

For she that scorned at me, now scorned of me;

For she being feared of all, now fearing one;

For she commanding all, obeyed of none.

Thus hath the course of justice whirled about

And left thee but a very prey to time,

Having no more but thought of what thou wast,

To torture thee the more, being what thou art.

Thou didst usurp my place, and dost thou not

Usurp the just proportion of my sorrow?

Now thy proud neck bears half my burdened yoke,

From which even here I slip my weary head

And leave the burden of it all on thee.

Farewell, York’s wife, and queen of sad mischance!

These English woes shall make me smile in France.

The image is of the house on Henley Street in Stratford-Upon-Avon, where Mary Arden gave birth to her playwright son.