Saturday, February 6, 2016

Taming of the Shrew - Shakespeare

The story in 'Taming of the Shrew' is pretty straightforward (once you get to it).  A wealthy man has two daughters.  The younger one, Bianca, is a much desired beauty.  The older one, Katherine, is wild and violent.  Many men want to marry the younger daughter but she will not be allowed to be wooed until the older one is married.
Two of the men who want to marry Bianca decide they must find someone to marry Katherine.  Enter Petruchio, drunk as a proverbial lord.  He is looking for a wife.  Well, more for a dowry than an actual wife.  When he hears of Katherine and her father's riches, he decides that she sounds like just the answer.
He tries to woo her and finds her just as wild as her reputation.  But eventually he wears her down.  (In the version I watched, she is physically exhausted from being chased hither and yon.  Plus, he had her arm twisted behind her back.)  Everyone is amazed at how quickly they have settled on a date.
They are wed, though Katherine is humiliated.  In fact, this is Petruchio's ploy.  He will keep throwing obstacles at her until she mellows.  He keeps her from eating.  He tempts her with fancy clothes and then destroys them.  Finally, he absurdly tells her that it is morning when it is the middle of the night.  When she disagrees, he starts to punish her again and lays out the directions plainly.  As long as she disagrees with him, things will go poorly for her.  But if she agrees, life will become easy.
The return to her family for Bianca's wedding.  The crowning moment is when Petruchio wagers with some of the other husbands that Katherine is not a shrew, but will come to them as soon as he calls.  The other wives, including Bianca, tell their husbands to wait, but Katherine drags them in and admonishes them for not treating their husbands like a king.

This must not be an easy play to put on today (to put it lightly!).  Stripped down to it's bare foundations, it's incredibly misogynistic.  Petruchio's treatment of Katherine is horrible and her speech at the end sounds like a staged hostage video.  As I was reading about the play, several sources went out of their way to say that it reads much more harshly than it stages.  The verbal jousting can certainly be harsh, but it can also be playful, if done in the right way.  Even Kate's final speech can be done in some kind of ironic manner, which will show that she has not been broken.
It can be tricky not to read too much into this play.  Shakespeare treated other women much better than he does Katherine.  Instead of treating her as a stand in for all women, and reading Petruchio's actions as a how-to manual, we have to remember that she is a specific character.  If she really is extremely out of control, then extreme measures will be called for to calm her.  (Though obviously, I won't endorse these methods.)

While watching this, I happened to think of the play 'Lysistrata'.  There, the women of Greece decide to handle their husbands by denying them sex until they stop fighting.  This has become something of a feminist classic.  Is it ok then, for wives to scheme against husbands but awful husbands to scheme against their wives?  Or is it always wrong for both of them?
I can't imagine trying to do anything like this against my wife and if one of my buddies told me of such a plan, I would be dead set against it.  Is the difference now that we see the marriage relationship so much more differently than they did in ancient Greece or Elizabethan England?

I watched the 1967 version which stars in Liz Taylor and Richard Burton.  Somehow in my classic movie watching, I have not seen either of them before.  Taylor is fantastic.  She is wild and passionate and vital (and kinda hot, to be honest).  Burton is also very good.  His Petruchio is larger than life and you can see hints of tenderness behind his ploys.
I would like to see some more performances.  The teen movie '10 Things I Hate About You' is based on 'Taming of the Shrew' and it does a very good job both with the basic story and in keeping the audience from hating the main characters.  There is also a 'Moonlighting' episode that recreates the story and I like that too.  In fact, the basic dynamic between Maddie and Dave is very similar to Kate and Petruchio.  Maddie is so full of sharp edges that she has trouble in relationships, while Dave is so larger-than-life gregarious that he is hard to trust.  (I miss that show.)

This is the last of the Shakespeare comedies in the Great Books plan.  I'll try to see some of the rest and write about them too.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Twelfth Night - Shakespeare

'Twelfth Night' opens with a lonely duke, Orsino.  He calls music 'the food of love' and wishes to overstuff himself in order to kill that love.  We quickly learn that he is in love with a Countess named Olivia but she won't love him back.
In the meantime, there has been a shipwreck.  Two survivors climb onto the beach and try to establish where they are.  One of them, Viola, asks if her brother has survived and is told that he hasn't.  She decides that since she is in a foreign place, she will disguise herself as a man and seek shelter with the Duke Orsino. 
Orsino brings the disguised Viola into his house and asks her to woo Olivia in his name.  She does so but (twist!), Olivia falls for Viola.  To make things more confusing, Viola's brother Sebastian has survived and also enters the town.  Olivia finds him and quickly marries him.  There is much confusion that is (fortunately!) all straightened out and we end up with two happy couples, Olivia and Sebastian; Viola and Count Orsino.


While all of this is happening, a group of rogues that live in the Countesses house are up to no good.  There we find Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheeck carousing to all hours of the night.  With the help of the maid and the clown, Feste, they get up to one hilarious scheme after the other. 
Their main target is Olivia's steward, a dour man named Malvolio.  Malvolio dreams of marrying the countess himself and they get him good.  They leave a note in her handwriting, praising him and wishing that he would wear yellow, cross-gartered stockings.  He does so and becomes incredibly foolish.  Eventually he finds out and, cursing everyone involved, walks out.


I don't think I've read or seen 'Twelfth Night' before. I enjoyed it quite a bit, especially the downstairs goings on.  Between Belch and Aguecheek, Shakespeare has created a couple of wonderful drunken idiots.  They are highlighted by their counterpoint, Malvolio, who is ridiculously harsh and pompous.  (I would love to play that role myself!)  The 'upstairs' elements are fun too, and a perfectly fine love story, but they are overshadowed by the rest.
I enjoyed this quite a bit.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Books Read in January

I did a bunch of reading for the Great Books this past month, and very little outside of it.  Overall, I read through three of Plato's dialogues, parts of three of Aristotle's works and five different plays from Shakespeare.  There are worse ways to spend a month than with Plato, Aristotle and Shakespeare.
Otherwise, I think it was just two books:


Declare, by Tim Powers - This was a reread for me, but it's been so long since I read the original that it was all new to me.  This book blends together legends of djinns, spy games with Kim Philby and the final resting place of Noah's Ark.  All great stuff.


Consider Phlebas, by Iain M Banks - New to me, though it's from an author that I enjoy quite a bit.  This is part of a far future space opera, where human civilization has come to be known as 'The Culture'.  In this book, the Culture is fighting against a warrior species called the Idiran.  A super-sentient AI gets lost behind enemy lines and something of a race is on to recover it.  Banks does such a good job of creating a rich world with complicated people in it.  This is no exception.


That's pretty much it.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Links to the Past

The Great Forgetting of the West's Cultural Heritage link

Suggestions for 'deep reading' the classics link

Why is Shakespeare still relevant?  link

Game lets you lead a mob against the Greek Gods link

Philosophy and the City (Existential Comics) link

Categories/Metaphysics - Aristotle

If there are no objections, I'm going to combine these two works from Aristotle.  All of my standard objections to Aristotle apply here, maybe more than usual.  I felt that much of it went over my head.  Aristotle is probably best worked through with other people.

'Categories' is Aristotle's opening to the study of logic.  The basic theme is that things can be put into different categories and better understood that way.  Categories can have sub-categories, as in cats > tabbies > female tabbies.  He recognizes several various ways that things can be categorized:
Of things said without any combination, each signifies either substance or quantity or qualification or a relative or where or when or being-in-a-position or having or doing or being-affected. To give a rough idea, examples of substance are man, horse; of quantity: four-foot, five-foot; of qualification: white, grammatical; of a relative: double, half, larger; of where: in the Lyceum, in the market-place; of when: yesterday, last-year; of being-in-a-position: is-lying, is-sitting; of having: has-shoes-on, has-armour-on; of doing: cutting, burning; of being-affected: being-cut, being-burned.

 Got all that?  Good.  I'm sure that this is ground that needed to be broken at some point, but it is so well lived at this point, that it didn't feel like anything new was being added to my life.

'Metaphysics' is an effort to understand the 'substance' of things.  I must admit that I understood little of this.  I talked with my dad and he said that one of the obstacles might be in the translation from ancient Greek to English.  Things like 'form' and 'substance' are virtually synonyms in English but they may have meant very different things back then.
This could be.  And it could also be that my mind has very little attention for discussions of 'the whichness of what'.  It's easier for me to work with problems of ethics and the like.  Your mileage may vary, but I found the Aristotle this month to be quite a struggle for very little reward.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Symposium - Plato

The narrative framing for this dialogue is really something else.  The story is told fourth or fifth hand; someone heard someone else telling about this and he heard it from someone.  This allows Plato to generously put words in people's mouths.  Who knows, it may bear some resemblance to an actual event?
In any case, 'Symposium' tells the story of a party.  The party goers partied too hard the night before and don't have a head for strong drink two nights in a row.  Instead, it is decided that they will each speak about 'love'.  They will take turns and go around the table and say something about it.
The speeches are interesting, though not world shaking.  They mostly range from 'love is the source of all good things' to 'some loves are more pure than others'.  My favorite is from Aristophanes (yes, that Aristophanes) where he suggests that in prehistory, all humans were joined together as a pair.  Each pair was split apart and 'love' is a strong desire to return to that earlier paired condition.  He also explains that some number of the pairs included men with men and women with women.
Socrates is the last to go (natch) and he explains that he was taught quite a bit about love by a woman who trained him in the arts of love.  He was primarily taught that love is a thing that, even when a man has it, he wants more of it.  In this, it is different than health or happiness in which people become content.  He also believes that love is a process in which the person perfects themselves as a person and (eventually) through pursuit of philosophy.
After Socrates ends, a latecomer, Alcibiades, enters.  He decides to also speak of love, though his is scorned love.  At an earlier time, he tried to let Socrates seduce him but Socrates didn't do so.  Alcibiades decided to pursue Socrates instead and ended up doing so by trying to become a better man.  This is where we get the term 'Platonic love'.

This work is rightfully praised as a look at what life must have been like in ancient Athens.  We learn a lot about how loving relationships worked, including older men with younger men.  The form here is much less conversational than the other Platonic dialogues I've read and more like an extended scene from a novel.  I enjoyed it quite a bit.

While reading this, I was constantly reminded of one of my favorite books, 'Time Enough For Love' by Robert Heinlein.  That book also features long stretches of people talking to each other about philosophical matters, including 'love'.  Heinlein has his main character, Lazarus Long, divide love into two categories, eros and agape.  He also gives an exact definition of agape love, 'the condition in which someone else's happiness is essential to your own happiness'.
I couldn't help but wonder if Heinlein had read 'Symposium' at some earlier time.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Upcoming Reads

When I am done with my Plato and Aristotle binge, I'm planning reading two pieces by Descartes:
  • Meditations on First Philosophy
  • Rules for the Direction of the Mind