Winter Solstice – 2015

Globe Liz

As we approach the shortest and darkest day of the year on the 21st, the Solstice, here’s a little ditty from the Bard. His oft quoted ‘Winter’ song ends the play Love’s Labour’s Lost.

WHEN icicles hang by the wall,

  And Dick the shepherd blows his nail,

And Tom bears logs into the hall,

  And milk comes frozen home in pail,

When blood is nipped, and ways be foul,

Then nightly sings the staring owl,

            To-whoo;

To-whit, to-whoo, a merry note,

While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.

 

When all aloud the wind doth blow,

  And coughing drowns the parson’s saw,

And birds sit brooding in the snow,

  And Marian’s nose looks red and raw,

When roasted crabs hiss in the bowl,

Then nightly sings the staring owl,

            To-whoo;

To-whit, to-whoo, a merry note,

While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.

 

–from Love’s Labour’s Lost, Act V, Scene ii

Not everything Shakespeare wrote needs to be profound on seven different levels, requiring a PhD in British Literature to decipher. This simple song (and yes, it’s been put to music by several composers) is pretty straightforward, singing about the discomforts of winter, and the singular joy of fellowship with family and friends, the comfort of good food indoors, out of the wind and snow.

Performances of Shakespeare’s plays in his lifetime–especially those through his early career of mostly comedies and histories–often ended with seeming impromptu songs or ditties. Not so impromptu; they were practiced and repeated. Alas, many of these are lost, never having been included with the texts in the First Folio.

Oftentimes the chief clown and dancer of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men’s, Will Kempe, led these songs. After about 1599 or so, much of these show-ending numbers ended. Kempe had a falling out with The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, and Shakespeare began his run of great tragedies. Perhaps it just didn’t seem right to dance a jig after the stage was overrun with blood.   Anyhow, today we have a small literary tragedy: that we don’t have a lot of these songs, or the music they were originally performed with. The curious ending of the Love’s Labour’s Lost, though, included two of these. I’ll save the other for a different season.  

Happy Solstice!

The image is of a painting by David Scott, circa 1840. It shows Queen Elizabeth I at the Globe Theatre–a bit of fantasy. The Queen never attended public performances.

Sunday Sonnet – 13 December 2015

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Shakespeare’s metaphor for Sonnet 23 encompasses two of The Bard’s prime avocations: Acting and poetry.  

23

As an unperfect actor on the stage
Who with his fear is put besides his part,
Or some fierce thing replete with too much rage,
Whose strength’s abundance weakens his own heart.
So I, for fear of trust, forget to say
The perfect ceremony of love’s rite,
And in mine own love’s strength seem to decay,
O’ercharged with burden of mine own love’s might.
O, let my books be then the eloquence
And dumb presagers of my speaking breast,
Who plead for love and look for recompense
More than that tongue that more hath more express’d.
O, learn to read what silent love hath writ:
To hear with eyes belongs to love’s fine wit.

The Poet tells his young love (the Young Man) that like an unpracticed actor on the stage who doesn’t yet know his lines, he doesn’t know what to say:

As an unperfect actor on the stage

to…

So I, for fear of trust, forget to say

The perfect ceremony of love’s rite.

Shakespeare also throws in a comparison to an animal that’s so fierce it can’t articulate its own heart. But by the end of the sonnet, the Poet gets back to the point. Instead of taking me for what I say (like the unpracticed actor), take me for what I write:

O, let my books be then the eloquence

I find this Sonnet really interesting from our modern perspective. Because now all we can really know about Shakespeare are what he’s left us in his writing. It’s almost as if the Poet is talking both to the Young Man, and to future generations: What really matters is what’s written down. Related to this, we don’t really know how Elizabethan actors sounded on stage. Yes, there have been some recent breakthroughs on Elizabethan pronunciation, clued by some of Shakespeare’s own puns. The Globe Theatre in London now offers some performances in what they believe is close to the original dialect. But in the end, it’s a bit of guesswork. Not with what’s written.  

So ultimately, the lesson the Poet gives the Young Man is this: anything not so eloquent I might say is evanescent; but what I’ve written down in the words of this sonnet–and in any of my books–are what’s true and everlasting.

The image is of the actual stage of the reconstructed Globe Theatre, which I was lucky enough to visit in 2010. We believe this is very much what it looked like when Shakespeare stood upon it.

Sunday Sonnet – 01 November 2015

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In composing his 154 Sonnets, Shakespeare upended the whole Renaissance ideal of Romantic Poetry. Yes, Shakespeare wrote about unrequited love, a love marked with rhetorical hyperbole, lovers addicted to love, love as pain (which popular music still hasn’t given up on), and the object of love being an idealized lady.

However, with Shakespeare, that love is tainted with betrayal, the idealized lady is a ‘dark’ lady, and the passion felt is not always heterosexual. In Sonnet 21, the Poet is writing to his beloved Young Man, warning him of a rival poets, rivals who employ inflated rhetoric and outrageous conceits. Shakespeare claims to simply write the bare truth:

21

So is it not with me as with that Muse
Stirr’d by a painted beauty to his verse,
Who heaven itself for ornament doth use
And every fair with his fair doth rehearse
Making a couplement of proud compare,
With sun and moon, with earth and sea’s rich gems,
With April’s first-born flowers, and all things rare
That heaven’s air in this huge rondure hems.
O’ let me, true in love, but truly write,
And then believe me, my love is as fair
As any mother’s child, though not so bright
As those gold candles fix’d in heaven’s air:
Let them say more than like of hearsay well;
I will not praise that purpose not to sell.

If you can home in a few key phrases, the sonnet because pretty clear:

  • ‘Painted beauty’–women wearing too much makeup.
  • ‘Making a couplement of proud compare’–outrageous conceits
  • ‘That heaven’s air in this huge rondure hems’–outrageous hyperbole (rondure means ‘sphere’)
  • ‘With sun and moon, with earth and sea’s rich gems’–idolizing your beauty
  • ‘O let me, true in love, but truly write’–my verse speaks only truth
  • ‘I will not praise that purpose not to sell’–I’m not selling you anything

The idea of the ‘rival poet’ makes its return later on Shakespeare’s sonnets. As usual, the theme of any particular sonnet is not insular; these 154 verses all interconnect.   And despite Shakespeare’s insistence that he doesn’t indulge in hyperbolic metaphors, he certainly does it elsewhere! But at least when the Bard does it, he crafts metaphor, simile and imagery more beautifully and eloquently than other rival Elizabethan poet.

The image of the reconstructed Globe Theatre in London, whom Shakespeare himself had a hand in designing. The ceiling of the main stage’s roof shows off the Renaissance idea of Heaven, something Poets apparently employed a little bit too often.