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 – 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.

Sunday Shakespeare – 10 April 2016

Stratford-upon-Avon-12

I spent the day today with my aged mother. Her growing infirmity, and the difficulty with which she confronts her daily tasks, had me ruminating on age, and the whole cycle of life. All this was happened under a shadow, for earlier this week a beautiful young soul I know of was cut down in her prime. Which is worse? They both have their evils.

This strange cycle of birth, growth, prime and the winding down toward death versus capricious strokes of accident or disease are all tragedies humans have had to struggle with since we first made fire. Shakespeare recognized it, of course, and in his day just as today, those that lived into old age (which was much earlier than it is today), had to struggle with that downward spiral. But of course, Shakespeare also know what it was like for the young to die; his own son Hamnet died at age eleven.

Interesting, and perhaps wise, that Shakespeare should choose one of his comedies, As You Like It, rather than a history or tragedy, to lay out the great cycle of human life in an eloquent monologue. It’s delivered by the melancholy cynic, Jaques:

All the world’s a stage,

And all the men and women merely players:

They have their exits and their entrances;

And one man in his time plays many parts,

His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,

Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.

And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel

And shining morning face, creeping like snail

Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,

Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad

Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,

Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,

Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,

Seeking the bubble reputation

Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,

In fair round belly with good capon lined,

With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,

Full of wise saws and modern instances;

And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts

Into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon,

With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,

His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide

For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,

Turning again toward childish treble, pipes

And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,

That ends this strange eventful history,

Is second childishness and mere oblivion,

Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

As You Like It, Act II Scene vii

George Bernard Shaw hated the Jacques character for his cynicism, and Oscar Wilde mocked this speech–‘All the world’s a stage, and the play is badly cast’–and there’s reason to believe the Elizabethans might’ve thought this monologue banal; the seven ages of man are borrowed from Aristotle.

I’m no Shaw or Wilde, and so I find the speech comforting. It tells me that what my mother’s suffering she isn’t suffering alone. As to the other tragedy this week–nothing can mitigate it. But so much of Shakespeare is so full of unjust death and bad luck, the beautiful and innocent–as well as the bad–being cut down in full-bloom. Live life while you may.

Yes, I love this monologue, for with each stage of life, it employs some vital characteristic, going beyond just a list: with image, sound and action it takes the audience through the journey of age: infants puke; school children whine but shine; young lovers sigh like furnaces; soldiers utter oaths, filled with jealously, sudden and quick; middle agers saw wisely; older middle agers shrink, their booming voice of youth raising into trebles; and last, oblivion.

Other writers mock it, or hate Jacques’ cynicism, or wonder why this speech doesn’t show up in Macbeth along with Macbeth’s own stage metaphor, but I love it where it is: a gentle reminder, gently placed, that the Elizabethans struggled with the same things we do. Shakespeare, time and again, endures.

The image is of Nash House in Stratford-upon-Avon. Right next to this Tudor building stands the foundation of New Place, now gone: the building where Shakespeare died.

Sunday Shakespeare – 03 April 2016

 

Waterhouse_miranda_the_tempest1

Today my daily walk took me through some very blustery Spring air: the clouds and trees moved and tossed and moaned and whistled with unsettled ease. It seemed a tempest might brew. That brings me to today’s brief notes: Shakespeare’s The Tempest. The opening scene of this play shows a tempest shipwrecking a vessel. In the second scene we meet the author of that tempest, the mighty Sorcerer Prospero. But how mighty is he? His own daughter takes him to task:

MIRANDA

If by your art, my dearest father, you have

Put the wild waters in this roar, allay them.

The sky, it seems, would pour down stinking pitch,

But that the sea, mounting to th’ welkin’s cheek,

Dashes the fire out. Oh, I have suffered

With those that I saw suffer. A brave vessel

Who had, no doubt, some noble creature in her

Dashed all to pieces. Oh, the cry did knock

Against my very heart! Poor souls, they perished.

Had I been any god of power, I would

Have sunk the sea within the earth or ere

It should the good ship so have swallowed and

The fraughting souls within her.

PROSPERO

     Be collected.

No more amazement. Tell your piteous heart

There’s no harm done.

MIRANDA

    Oh, woe the day!

PROSPERO

      No harm.

I have done nothing but in care of thee,

Of thee, my dear one—thee my daughter, who

Art ignorant of what thou art, naught knowing

Of whence I am, nor that I am more better

Than Prospero, master of a full poor cell

And thy no greater father.

MIRANDA

    More to know

Did never meddle with my thoughts.

The Tempest, Act I Scene ii

 

May I highlight what I think is the most the lovely part of Miranda’s opening speech?

…you have

Put the wild waters in this roar, allay them.

The sky, it seems, would pour down stinking pitch,

But that the sea, mounting to th’ welkin’s [heaven’s] cheek,

Dashes the fire out.

Isn’t it great?

Anyhow, for years I wondered why I keep coming back to this opening scene between the sorcerer Prospero and his daughter Miranda and I think I’ve figured it out.

Miranda loves her father, but nonetheless knows he created the storm and that it has apparently sunk a ship, killing the men on board. He responds with vague promises that no harm was done and that he’s only doing it for her, and that she doesn’t know everything. Sounds like lame excuses.

And yet Prospero, by play’s end, ascends to be one of Shakespeare’s greatest protagonists. And that’s why I like this beginning: It’s a great lesson for writers. The best writers set up their heroes for failure: heroes who are flawed and seem incapable of redemption.

Shakespeare introduces one of his greatest characters by having him taken down by the very sympathetic Miranda, she motivated by the most noble of principles: she cares for her fellow men–even strangers. Shakespeare doubles down on this technique later in the scene when he introduces Ariel and Caliban, Prospero’s two magical servants. They’re really slaves. By scene’s end we see Prospero treating Caliban with contempt, and basically admitting to Ariel that he’s broken his promises to the creature.

Back to Miranda. She’s innocent and naïve, yet brave, not afraid to disagree with her father. And she’s honest–when she sees Ferdinand for the first time, she doesn’t hesitate to admit she loves him. But I guess what I really love about Miranda is at play’s end, Shakespeare chooses her to utter these immortal lines:

O, wonder!


How many goodly creatures are there here!


How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,


That has such people in’t!

The Tempest, Act V Scene i

The Tempest is arguably the capstone of Shakespeare’s works, coming as does near the end of his career. And despite all the travails of the harsh Elizabethan world, and all the tragedies of Shakespeare’s own life, he prefers to release, on the lips of a Miranda, a message of hope and belief in the nature of mankind.

The image of John William Waterhouse’s painting Miranda – The Tempest, 1916, one of Waterhouses’ last Pre-Raphaelite influenced masterpieces, showing the sorcerer’s daughter witnessing the ships destruction. Apparently Shakespeare’s scene can inspire both writers and painters alike.

 

Happy April Fool’s from Edgar A. Poe! – 01 April 2016

balloonhoax

Poe was a renowned liar, bluffer and tale-teller, and loved mysteries, conundrums, contraptions and ciphers. On more than one occasion his stories shocked readers not just because their content broke nineteenth century social or literary taboos, but because the audience mistook his fiction for fact. Sometimes this was intentional on the author’s part. Take what Poe published in The New York Sun in 1844 under a headline that read ASTOUNDING NEWS! By Express Via Norfolk.  

‘The Balloon Hoax’ recounts what appears to be an actual crossing of the Atlantic Ocean. From our modern perspective, note that no one would manage to make an real balloon crossing until the twentieth century, over sixty years later. But Poe, like all good liars, weaved a bit of truth into his grand joke, cribbing the names of an actual European balloonists into his narrative, creating a false ‘journal’ and stuffing the yarn with plenty of technical jargon and mechanical descriptions. Even a fake illustration.

The actual article, or story, is pretty dry and standard stuff for Poe, and from a modern reader’s perspective a bit too padded. It’s available almost everywhere to read if you want to. If you don’t, allow me to point you to the most delicious part–its closing lines. In this final paragraph, Poe seems to be slyly mocking his readers and the paper that agreed to publish it:

This is unquestionably the most stupendous, the most interesting, and the most important undertaking, ever accomplished or even attempted by man. What magnificent events may ensue, it would be useless now to think of determining.

The follow-up to this hoax is where the real fun lies (pun intended). Not long after this story ran, Poe published a recollection of the events on the morning of the hoax’s publication. Poe stood on the steps of The New York Sun, supposedly trying to tell people it was a joke. But he encountered pandemonium. If we’re to believe Poe (which we might not), there were riots as citizens fought to get copies of the amazing news of an Atlantic crossing by air. Poe’s own words:  

On the morning (Saturday) of its announcement, the whole square surrounding the ‘Sun’ building was literally besieged, blocked up—ingress and egress being alike impossible, from a period soon after sunrise until about two o’clock P.M…. I never witnessed more intense excitement to get possession of a newspaper. As soon as the few first copies made their way into the streets, they were bought up, at almost any price, from the news-boys, who made a profitable speculation beyond doubt. I saw a half-dollar given, in one instance, for a single paper, and a shilling was a frequent price. I tried, in vain, during the whole day, to get possession of a copy.

Finally, Poe not only fooled the public, he fooled The New York Sun, who also thought the story was an actual report. Two days later they had to print a retraction.

The image is a hand-drawn copy of a balloon contraption Poe found; reputedly this drawing is in Poe’s own hand. The Raven had many talents.