Happy Valentine’s Day from The Bard


For Valentine’s Day, I’d like to read my favorite love sonnet of all time.   Shakespeare’s masterpiece, Sonnet 116.

This is for Mary.  


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.

Shakespeare Saturday – 21 January 2017


Today seems apropos for Shakespeare’s great speech about women’s empowerment–or lack thereof. 

It’s easy to cast Lady Macbeth as a supreme villainess, and that’s what so many scholars and directors have done over the centuries.  But think of when Shakespeare wrote the role of Lady Macbeth: women were property, not even allowed to act on stage–a boy had to speak Lady Macbeth’s lines.  But by the time of Macbeth, Shakespeare’s writing had matured, and he began to give us women’s roles that probably shocked some of his Elizabethan theatre-goers. 

And so we have Lady Macbeth, who first spoke on the stage of the Globe Theatre, but still speaks to us today:  She came to life in a universe where all power sat in the laps of men.  Hers was a profound desire for empowerment, and the only way she could express it was a yearning to unsex herself–that is, make her masculine.  Of course that is not how we’d prefer to think of it or express it today–but in truth, isn’t that what our world still forces women do?     

Lady Macbeth

…Come, you spirits

That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,

And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full

Of direst cruelty. Make thick my blood.

Stop up the access and passage to remorse,

That no compunctious visitings of nature

Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between

The effect and it! Come to my woman’s breasts,

And take my milk for gall, you murd’ring ministers,

Wherever in your sightless substances

You wait on nature’s mischief. Come, thick night,

And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell,

That my keen knife see not the wound it makes,

Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark

To cry “Hold, hold!”

–from Macbeth, Act I Scene v

The image is of Marion Cotillard as Lady Macbeth from the 2015 film version. 

Thankful for William Shakespeare – Thanksgiving Day 2016


On Tuesday of this week, I was fortunate enough to be able see one the surviving copies of Shakespeare’s ‘First Folio,’ which is on loan at our local museum from the Folger Shakespeare Library.  

Why is this book such a big deal?  Because, without it, eighteen of Shakespeare’s plays might very well have been lost, including such masterpieces as Macbeth, The Tempest, As You Like It, Comedy of Errors, Antony and Cleopatra, Julius Caesar, Twelfth Night and The Winter’s Tale, among others. 

We have Shakespeare’s three great series of verse: two he published himself, and the Sonnets saw publication, without Shakespeare’s permission, in his lifetime.  But only a selection of his plays were published before his death.    

You see, in Elizabethan times, the notion of a playwright ‘owning’ the plays he wrote was not how we think of it today.  The acting company owned the play, not the author (the egoistical Ben Jonson being a notable exception).  Since Shakespeare himself was one of the owners of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (and after Elizabeth I’s death, The King’s Men), he was, legally speaking, one of the owners of the plays he wrote.  But he didn’t have sole control.  And so at least eighteen of his plays either never saw publication or, if they did, their releases have been lost through the capricious destruction of time.


Fortunately, in 1623, seven years after Shakespeare’s death, two of Shakespeare’s fellow company members, John Heminges and Henry Condell, took it upon themselves to assemble thirty-six of Shakespeare’s plays.  We can’t read their minds from four centuries away, but certainly they had a sense of Will’s enduring greatness.  Because these former players took on this herculean task (assembling, typesetting and printing such a gigantic volume in the Jacobean era was a massive, labor-intensive and costly endeavor), they forever changed Western Art.  They preserved Shakespeare’s innovation, eloquence and moral truths for posterity. 

Consider just a fraction of what Shakespeare left us:

Psychology: Hamlet introduced the notion of manic depression into Western Art.  To this very day we still fight a society-wide prejudice against mental illness.  But The Bard was able to peer into the heart of that affliction. 

Women:  In a society that treated women little better than expensive cattle, Shakespeare was able, as his craft matured, see women as human beings fully endowed with hope, wit, grace and the desire to be equals with men:

  • Lady Macbeth— Macbeth – saved by the First Folio, a woman who yearns for the same power as a man
  • Rosalind – As You Like It – saved by the First Folio, a woman who teaches the men around her what it means to think and feel like a human
  • Viola – Twelfth Night – saved by the First Folio, more clever than any of the men around her, disguised yet the epitome of honesty
  • Cleopatra – Antony and Cleopatra – saved by the First Folio, tragically fully human
  • So many others in other plays and verses we do have outside of the First Folio; two of my favorites are Beatrice from Much Ado About Nothing and the Dark Lady from The Sonnets.

The soliloquy:  Shakespeare invented the whole notion of a character in the imaginary world of the stage speaking directly to the audience—from the heart, uttering aloud the deepest secrets of consciousness.  He started it in Julius Caesar, and perfected it in Hamlet.  You know—‘To Be or Not to Be’.   This breaking down of the fourth wall, as it’s now called, is common practice today on our own TVs.  Think Keven Spacey from House of Cards

Race:  Shakespeare crossed over the hard and unremittent social barrier of racism.  Certainly Shakespeare was product of his time, and the Elizabethans were frightfully racist, but Shakespeare had the vision and daring to imagine characters like Othello and the Dark Lady of The Sonnets, fully-fleshed human beings.  Othello was actually published separately the year before The First Folio, but also included in that gigantic volume. 

Sex:  Breaking the barrier of sexual orientation:  Two-thirds of the Sonnets are a male poet writing to a Young man.   And in many of his plays—Twelfth Night, As You Like It, The Merchant of Venice—women see fit to disguise themselves as men in order to achieve their goals.  There is so much going on with meme.  

Language – words:  up to 1700 words in the English language first appear in Shakespeare’s works: Addiction, amazement, arouse, bedroom, blanket, bloodstained, champion, circumstantial, cold-blooded, dauntless, dishearten, drugged, epileptic, elbow, eyeball, frugal, gloomy, gossip, hobnob, hurried, impartial, jaded, laughable, lustrous, madcap, majestic, moonbeam, obscene, Olympian, premeditated, puking, rant, savagery, skim milk, swagger, torture, undress, vaulting, worthless, zany and so many others. 

Language – phrases:  He invented dozens of catch phrases we still use today:  

  • The game is afoot
  • Bated breath
  • Break the ice
  • Cold comfort
  • Dead as a doornail
  • Eaten me out of house and home
  • For goodness’ sake
  • Foregone conclusion
  • Good riddance
  • Heart of gold
  • Kill with kindness
  • Love is blind
  • Milk of human kindness
  • One fell swoop
  • Wild goose chase

Language – poetic:  The eloquence of his poetry and prose is unequaled.  Today we find Elizabethan English challenging to understand.  Still, four centuries later audiences flock to Shakespeare plays.   Why?  One of the main reasons, I believe, is because it’s so achingly beautiful.  Good actors work hard to bring Shakespearean English to life so that the modern ear can understand.  But the beauty and power of that language takes little effort: it carries itself on the tongue. 

Humanity:  Shakespeare wrote with an invisible hand.  That is, he created hundreds of characters who were utterly individual, infused with the stuff of unique human life.  It’s a miracle to contemplate that a single artist could do this.  This is another facet of what makes Shakespeare’s play so enduring.    

Moral Code:  Finally, we come to the moral center of his works.  Whether histories, comedies, tragedies, the so-called problem plays, or the poetry, Shakespeare’s characters–their struggles, their fates, their aspirations and failures–speak to those things that make us human: loss, lust, jealousy, laughter, grace, hope and the greatest power us poor humans have, love. Shakespeare wrote about the human capacity for love in more ways than any other artist we’ve ever had.  His are lessons for the ages. 

These are just a few reasons why Shakespeare is my religion. 




Sunday Sonnet – 13 November 2016


Shakespeare’s 26th Sonnet, written to the Fair Youth, is not numbered as one of his greatest, but I like it.  Its central metaphor of a vassal professing homage to his Lord is very medieval and feels very much part of the times—Elizabethan times, that is.  Social class was everything. This sonnet can also seem very traditional in poetic terms: the master-servant theme was common in Petrarchan love poetry.  Beyond that, though, this sonnet is pretty radical for Elizabethan poetry, like most of Shakespeare’s sonnets are.  It’s a male Poet writing to a male young man, after all. 

The other reason I like this sonnet is that it seems to offer a tantalizing clue about Shakespeare the man.  Who the devil was the Will the playwright, the player, the businessman, husband and father?  What was his day-to-day life like?  We barely know.  That hasn’t kept scholars, historians and students from wondering—and arguing.  One thread to pull at is the supposition that the sonnets are somehow autobiographical.  Even though I adhere to this theory—probably because I’m trying to write a book about The Bard’s life—a few Shakespearean scholars I really respect don’t necessarily buy into this. 

This sonnet seems to suggest the two lovers are physically separated:  ‘To thee I send this written embassage’ and ‘Till then not show my head…’   Hints of actual life events? 

Regardless, things are not going well between the two lovers, and the Poet is ‘wanting words to show’ how much he still loves the Young Man.  He professes his wit is poor, but of course we know that isn’t true.  Four centuries later we’re still poring over his verse.    


Lord of my love, to whom in vassalage
Thy merit hath my duty strongly knit,
To thee I send this written embassage,
To witness duty, not to show my wit:
Duty so great, which wit so poor as mine
May make seem bare, in wanting words to show it,
But that I hope some good conceit of thine
In thy soul’s thought, all naked, will bestow it;
Till whatsoever star that guides my moving
Points on me graciously with fair aspect
And puts apparel on my tatter’d loving,
To show me worthy of thy sweet respect:
Then may I dare to boast how I do love thee;
Till then not show my head where thou mayst prove me.


Happy Election Eve from William Shakespeare!


As seemingly unprecedented and wild as this election season has been in the U.S., the perspective from the long arc of history tells us this has all happened before.  If you don’t believe me, you need go no further than my favorite oracle, William Shakespeare.  Many of his plays were about history and politics, and through his long career of playmaking, he created Kings and Queen, rakes and rogues, saints and saviors, all professing service to the state. 

In preparation for tomorrow’s Election Day, I’ve culled together a few choice quotes about politicians and politics.  Looking at all of them together, one might be tempted to say Shakespeare was pretty cynical and open-eyed about politics.  But not everything here is negative.  Take a look and see if you can match quotes to specific events and people from this past year. 

I am disgraced, impeached, and baffled here,

Pierced to the soul with slander’s venomed spear.

Richard II, Act 1 Scene 1

Woe to that land that’s governed by a child

Richard III, Act 2 Scene 3

Tis much when sceptres are in children’s hands,

But more when envy breeds unkind division:

There comes the ruin, there begins confusion.

Henry VI Part 1, Act 4 Scene 1

The commonwealth of Athens is become a forest of beasts.

Timon of Athens, Act IV, Scene 3

The caterpillars of the commonwealth,

Which I have sworn to weed and pluck away.

Richard II, Act 2 Scene 3

Why, look you, I am whipp’d and scourg’d with rods,

Nettled and stung with pismires[nettles], when I hear

Of this vile politician, Bolingbroke.

Henry IV Part 1, Act 1 Scene 3

Get thee glass eyes, and like a scurvy politician,

seem to see the things thou dost not.

King Lear, Act 4, Scene 6

That skull had a tongue in it and could sing once. How the knave jowls it to the ground, as if it were Cain’s jawbone, that did the first murder! It might be the pate of a politician, which this ass now o’erreaches, one that would circumvent God, might it not?

Hamlet, Act 5, Scene 1

When lenity and cruelty play for a kingdom,

the gentler gamester is the soonest winner

Henry V, Act 3 Scene 6

Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.

Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 4

This image is of Elizabeth I, Shakespeare’s ruler, circa 1588.  This portrait is called ‘The Woburn Abbey’ portrait, possibly painted by George Gower.  The painting celebrates Elizabeth’s triumph over the Spanish Armada.  As you can see, she holds the whole globe of the Earth in her hand. 

Happy Halloween from William Shakespeare!


Halloween as we know it today didn’t exist in Shakespeare’s time.  Our dark and costumed celebration evolved from many sources, including the Celtic ‘Samhain’ and the ongoing cultural and religious clashes between the pagan practices of the British Isles and the invasion of Christianity.  And so plenty of end-of-harvest rituals with pagan origins were practiced in Elizabethan times, especially in Ireland, Scotland and Wales. 

Certainly Shakespeare was aware of these, for his plays contain many examples of pagan and Christian myths, all mashed up. Judging by the way Shakespeare could chill and terrify his audiences, could one be blamed if they thought Shakespeare invented this holiday?  Of course he didn’t, but The Bard knew how to mix myth, superstition, paganism, Christianity, monsters, ghosts and curses.  Here are four of some my favorite creepy speeches from Shakespeare, my way of wishing everyone a very Bardic Halloween.  Enjoy! 

Caliban, from The Tempest, Act 2, Scene 2:

All the infections that the sun sucks up

From bogs, fens, flats, on Prosper fall and make him

By inchmeal a disease! His spirits hear me

And yet I needs must curse. But they’ll nor pinch,

Fright me with urchin-shows, pitch me i’ th’ mire,

Nor lead me like a firebrand in the dark

Out of my way, unless he bid ’em. But

For every trifle are they set upon me,

Sometime like apes that mow and chatter at me,

And after bite me, then like hedgehogs which

Lie tumbling in my barefoot way and mount

Their pricks at my footfall. Sometime am I

All wound with adders who with cloven tongues

Do hiss me into madness.


Iago, from Othello, Act 2 Scene 3:

How am I then a villain

To counsel Cassio to this parallel course,

Directly to his good? Divinity of hell!

When devils will the blackest sins put on

They do suggest at first with heavenly shows

As I do now. For whiles this honest fool

Plies Desdemona to repair his fortune

And she for him pleads strongly to the Moor,

I’ll pour this pestilence into his ear:


The Ghost, from Hamlet, Act 1 Scene 5:

I am thy father’s spirit,

Doom’d for a certain term to walk the night,

And for the day confin’d to fast in fires,

Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature

Are burnt and purg’d away. But that I am forbid

To tell the secrets of my prison house,

I could a tale unfold whose lightest word

Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,

Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres…


Lady Macbeth, from Macbeth, Act 1 Scene 5:

Come, you spirits

That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,

And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full

Of direst cruelty. Make thick my blood.

Stop up the access and passage to remorse,

That no compunctious visitings of nature

Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between

The effect and it! Come to my woman’s breasts,

And take my milk for gall, you murd’ring ministers,

Wherever in your sightless substances

You wait on nature’s mischief. Come, thick night,

And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell,

That my keen knife see not the wound it makes,

Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark

To cry “Hold, hold!”


Sunday Sonnet – 23 October 2016


In our modern era we love movies, books and sports games that deliver us stunning reversals at the very end. Well, Shakespeare was practicing this over 400 years ago, and his Sonnet 24 is a superb example of that.

Number 24 contains one of the most fully complete metaphors of all of the sonnets: the Poet’s love for the Young Man’s beauty has consumed him, so much so that the Poet becomes a veritable painting, filled in with that beautiful image. The Poet’s gaze–his gazing at the Young Man–is the painter. The Poet’s body is the frame of that painting. The Poet’s bosom itself houses the exquisite image of the Young Man.

The sonnet is lovely to read. And up until its last line, this verse seems to hew to the traditional Romantic poetry of Shakespeare’s time: mindless (but delicious) adulation of the subject, something most of the rest of Shakespeare’s sonnets either deride or mock.   But Shakespeare doesn’t disappoint. The final couplet sets it up, and the final phrase of the sonnet delivers it: ‘know not the heart.’ The painting in the Poet’s bosom reflects only a surface illusion; all this adulation has done nothing to capture the Young Man’s heart. It’s all really just a sham.


Mine eye hath play’d the painter and hath stell’d
Thy beauty’s form in table of my heart;
My body is the frame wherein ’tis held,
And perspective it is the painter’s art.
For through the painter must you see his skill,
To find where your true image pictured lies;
Which in my bosom’s shop is hanging still,
That hath his windows glazed with thine eyes.
Now see what good turns eyes for eyes have done:
Mine eyes have drawn thy shape, and thine for me
Are windows to my breast, where-through the sun
Delights to peep, to gaze therein on thee;
Yet eyes this cunning want to grace their art;
They draw but what they see, know not the heart.

Sunday Sonnet – 16 October 2016


Sonnet 23 is rarely counted among Shakespeare’s greatest, but I’m terribly fond of it for a couple reasons.

Its opening lines allude to Shakespeare’s own profession as an actor, which is tantalizing since we know so little about Shakespeare’s life. I also like this sonnet because it speaks to the power of the written word, and how that is more enduring than the power of the spoken word. If you think about it, that pretty much summarizes Shakespeare’s two artistic worlds: his theatre craft, the art of the spoken word, and his published verse, the power of the written word. Of course both of these get muddled: After Shakespeare’s death, his friends published his plays, preserving the Bard’s legacy in writing. And poetry? Many believe all verse is meant to be read aloud.

For the purposes of this sonnet, the Poet argues that the Young Man can find the truest expression of the Poet’s love in his written verse, and not in speech. Isn’t that true for many of us even today, in our modern world? Written words to a lover carry so much more weight. It’s one thing to throw off a clever quip, too often spat out with too much emotion; so much more clear and enduring it you can commit that emotion to pen and paper.


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.

Sunday Sonnet – 09 October 2016


Glorious, bawdy, androgynous and controversial, Sonnet # 20 is one of my favorites. The Poet is writing to the Young Man, and in this poem we get some hints of the Young Man’s physical attributes and the kind of sexuality he might’ve exuded: he evokes many qualities of a woman: ‘A woman’s face with Nature’s own hand painted / Hast thou’, ‘A woman’s gentle heart’ and ‘an eye more bright than theirs.’

As usual with Shakespeare’s sonnets, there’s a lot going on here. The Poet might be comparing his Young Man’s qualities to a woman’s, but at the same time he’s trashing women in general: ‘not acquainted / With shifting change, as is false women’s fashion’, and the Young Man’s eyes are brighter than woman’s, and ‘less false in rolling.’

Misogynistic? Yes, but this was the Elizabethan period. I’m not making the case that Shakespeare was a misogynist: many of his male characters were, but by the end of his career The Bard gave us some astonishing female characters. But for the purposes of this sonnet, it’s there and it’s hard to argue against.

Then there’s the bawdy part, and it’s not overt like some stuff in his later sonnets. It’s sly. Nature has made the Young Man very much like a woman, except for that small detail of ‘one thing.’ And in case you don’t get what that one thing is, Shakespeare can’t resist slipping in a delicious pun in the final couplet ‘But since she prick’d thee out for women’s pleasure.’

Reading this sonnet, it’s also wise to remember that Shakespeare loved to change up gender roles; his plays have many instances of the sexes getting mixed up. Here, of course, it’s not an intentional disguise that’s mixing up the sexes, it’s Nature herself.

So what’s the Poet to do with this mix up? He pretty much doesn’t know–for the moment he’s satisfied to take the Young Man’s love, letting women take the ‘one thing’ the Poet has no use for.

The intricacies don’t stop there. An examination of the poem’s iambic pentameter show that in this sonnet, Shakespeare gave what’s known in poetic circles as feminine endings to his lines: that is, an extra syllable at the end. ‘Painted’ and ‘acquainted’, so on and so forth.  

Finally, there’s the historical and critical controversy over Sonnet #20. Does it suggest Shakespeare might’ve been gay? Are the Sonnets numbered in an intentional sequence and thus tell a story–making #20 key? If so, is that story autobiographical? Who knows? Just go and enjoy this masterpiece!


A woman’s face with Nature’s own hand painted
Hast thou, the master-mistress of my passion;
A woman’s gentle heart, but not acquainted
With shifting change, as is false women’s fashion;
An eye more bright than theirs, less false in rolling,
Gilding the object whereupon it gazeth;
A man in hue, all ‘hues’ in his controlling,
Much steals men’s eyes and women’s souls amazeth.
And for a woman wert thou first created;
Till Nature, as she wrought thee, fell a-doting,
And by addition me of thee defeated,
By adding one thing to my purpose nothing.
But since she prick’d thee out for women’s pleasure,
Mine be thy love and thy love’s use their treasure.

Sunday Sonnet – 02 October 2016


As the sequence of Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets dives into its second section–the love poems to the Young Man–in number 19 we get a taste of Shakespeare’s sense of ‘Time.’ It’s nice to be right (in my own life I’m occasionally right) but here Shakespeare was right now only when he wrote this sonnet, but he’s still right four hundred years later: the only thing that can combat the destruction of Time is the power of Art.

This sonnet is not considered to be among his greatest, but I think it’s fantastic for its vivid animal imagery describing time’s devouring power. It starts with:

            And Earth devour her own sweet brood;  

            Pluck the keen teeth from the fierce tiger’s jaws…

In addition to being a sonnet that’s a lot of fun to read aloud, if you remember my little tutorial from a week ago, Sonnet 19 breaks one of the rules of the Shakespearean sonnet. The ‘turn’ in the argument begins one line early; not at the start of the third quatrain, but in the last line of the second quatrain:

             But I forbid thee one most heinous crime.  

I don’t know if this should be considered a ‘flaw’ in this sonnet or not. Certainly Shakespeare was aware of it; perhaps for the sake of balance and argument, he chose to place the turn in his argument one line early. Or I perhaps it was too hard to fix. That I kind of doubt–he was the master of this form. I’ve tried writing Shakespearean sonnets, and it’s incredibly difficult to construct anything that makes sense, reads well, doesn’t mix metaphors, follows the proscribed meter and rhyme, follows the sonnet form, and is good enough to still be read four hundred years later.

Flaw or not, Time devours everything but Art.


Devouring Time, blunt thou the lion’s paws,
And make the earth devour her own sweet brood;
Pluck the keen teeth from the fierce tiger’s jaws,
And burn the long-lived phoenix in her blood;
Make glad and sorry seasons as thou fleet’st,
And do whate’er thou wilt, swift-footed Time,
To the wide world and all her fading sweets;
But I forbid thee one most heinous crime:
O, carve not with thy hours my love’s fair brow,
Nor draw no lines there with thine antique pen;
Him in thy course untainted do allow
For beauty’s pattern to succeeding men.
Yet, do thy worst, old Time: despite thy wrong,
My love shall in my verse ever live young.