Thursday, June 23, 2016


A few weeks ago I came across this article regarding Salman Rushdie's advice on learning poetry as children.  'Speaking at the Hay Festival, the novelist described memorizing poems as a “lost art” that “enriches your relationship with language”.'  I've been thinking about it ever since.
I don't have a great memory for poetry.  Or lyrics.  I'm very good at remembering music, but not so good with the words (to my wife's regular amusement).  There isn't a single poem beyond nursery rhymes that I know by heart.
 But I've done large chunks of memorizing in the past, on stage.  A couple of weeks ago I reread 'Romeo and Juliet' and I was surprised by just how much of Romeo's lines I still knew.  Oh, I couldn't give them to you right now, but as I read them, they were completely comfortable in my mouth.  There is still something there.  I suspect that I've just done a poor job of hanging on to it.
So I'm going to learn some poems.  I'm going to know them by heart so that they are always with me.  Now I just need to figure out which ones...  I have a few in mind but I may need some help with suggestions.
I'm going to learn:
Li Po's 'Drinking Alone Beneath the Moon' (which I read about here)
 Something from 'Richard II'. Either one of the fine passages from the deposition scene or the 'let us sit and talk of the death of kings' speech.
Maybe something from 'Fox in Socks' which may seem like a strange choice but I've come to think of him as my spirit animal.
And I don't know what else I should consider. I love Tennyson's 'Ulysses' but that may be of an overly ambitious length. I'm not sure what else I should think about. Suggestions?

Update: I think I've fixed all of the weird text issues now.  Yeesh.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

The Tempest - Shakespeare

The plot in the 'The Tempest' is on the thin side.  A former duke named Prospero was ousted from power and cast adrift with his young daughter, Miranda.  A loyalist smuggled his books of learning to him and Prospero became a wizard of sorts.  The two landed on an island with magic elements and Prospero took control.  Some years later, a boat went past his island containing the men who wronged him.  Prospero caused a storm, i.e. a tempest, and brought the men to his island.
While there, some of the men show their true colors and try for another power play.  The son of the king falls for Miranda, and vice versa.  Two of the lower class men fall in with the sole native of the island, Caliban, and plot to overthrow Prospero.  But Prospero's control over the island, helped by his servant fairy Ariel, is complete and he is in no danger.
As I said, the story is on the thin side, but the poetry is outstanding.  My favorite is probably Caliban's dream:
Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again: and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me that, when I waked,
I cried to dream again.
Very good stuff.  The cloud capp'd towers speech is also very nice:
You do look, my son, in a moved sort,
As if you were dismay'd: be cheerful, sir.
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Ye all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep. Sir, I am vex'd;
Bear with my weakness; my, brain is troubled:
Be not disturb'd with my infirmity:
If you be pleased, retire into my cell
And there repose: a turn or two I'll walk,
To still my beating mind.
I'd never read the Tempest before this.  Some months ago I bought a book that contains stories from Shakespeare for children.  My daughter recognized that the Tempest was a famous play and asked me to read that story to her.  I didn't want to since I wanted the story fresh for myself when I read it.  So I jumped the line and read the Tempest earlier than I would have otherwise.
Does it deserve the fame?  I'm not sure.  It doesn't read as a stand out from the romances.  I'd put at least half a dozen of the straight comedies above it.  But maybe the poetry reads better from the stage.  Or maybe the spectacle of the magic and storm plays better.  I honestly don't know.

It's always interesting to me how some of Shakespeare's plays are absolutely soaked in magic, while others are incredibly realist.  I read the Tempest while reading the history plays and the difference is striking.  Prospero's magic is over-arching.  Ariel is a (trapped) fairy who can perform seeming miracles.  Caliban is born of a monster of some sort named Sycorax, who had some evil magic.  The entire story depends on magic abilities to do incredible things.  It is all fantasy.

Is Prospero a hero?  That's the question that I kept asking myself.  He was betrayed and kicked out power.  He arrives at an island to find the former ruler has recently died.  He turns her son, Caliban, into a kind of slave.  He frees Ariel (and the others) from the trees where they were imprisoned, but then binds them to do his work. 
Even when the other men show up, it isn't clear if he is a good man or not.  He threatens their ship with a storm but keeps them safe.  He separates them and lets them believe that the others have died.  He 'allows' his daughter to fall in love with literally the first outside man she sees, but then she sets the man onto a pointless task.  In the end, all is revealed and forgiven.  Prospero gives up his books, and magic.  He is restored to his former position.  (Miranda and her new love will be happily married.)   
But is Prospero a good man?  I can't tell.  Something in his manner made me feel that he deserved little or no sympathy.  I wonder if I would feel differently after watching a few performances?

Monday, June 20, 2016


This post is something of a cheat and for that I apologize.  It's more of a status report than anything else. 
I want to set down some ideas on the remaining works of Shakespeare.  I've blogged about all of the comedies and histories.  I've blogged about five of the ten tragedies and the first of the five romances.  I have nine plays left to write about, though I've read all but five.  Since the beginning of May, I've been reading about two a week and I'll be done with the full 38 the first full week of July. 
Unfortunately, I've had trouble writing about more than two of them per week, so I've fallen behind.  That's not that big of a deal, I suppose.  In fact, I'm not entirely certain what I'll fill the blog with once I'm done with the Bard. 
Something will turn up. 

I'm really enjoying 'Don Quixote' and I'll be done with that around the first week of July as well.  After that I want to tackle either Tristam Shandy or Tom Jones.  Any suggestions?

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Pericles - Shakespeare

Near the end of his career, Shakespeare wrote five plays that are comedies, but somewhat different than the ones that he had written earlier.  These plays are often called 'Romances' or 'Late Romances'.  (The Wikipedia entry that I've linked is a pretty good explainer as to why they are treated differently than the earlier plays.)  The first of the romances is 'Pericles, Prince of Tyre'.

'Pericles' is told as something of a whirlwind of action.  The play opens with Pericles trying to marry the daughter of the king of Antioch.  The king forces all suitors to answer a riddle about the princess that reveals that she was forced into incest with the king.  Pericles guesses the answer but is horrified to say it to the king's face.  He demurs and asks for time to answer.  The king grants this and then tries to have Pericles killed.
Pericles flees to his home in Tyre and then flees again to go overseas.  He and his men go to Tharsus where they help relieve a famine.  He then leaves again and his ship is wrecked.  He is the only survivor and is cast up on the shore of Pentapolis.
He is penniless and enters a tournament for the hand of the daughter of the king of Pentapolis, Thaisa.  Thaisa likes the look of him and the king calls off the tournament and Pericles and Thaisa are married.
Some time later Pericles learns that the king of Antioch has died and he must hurry home or be thought dead and no longer be the prince of Tyre.  He leaves with Thaisa but another storm disturbs them.  During the storm, Thaisa gives birth and is thought dead.  The sailors convince Pericles to throw her overboard, which he does after sealing her in a coffin with jewels and a note.
The body washes up in Mytilene and it is quickly discovered that Thaisa is not dead.  She fears that the rest of the ship must have broken up and Pericles must be dead.  She is taken to a temple of Diana to serve there.
Meanwhile, Pericles has sailed back to Tharsus and left the baby there.  (He doesn't have any milk to give her.)  The baby is named Marina, as a nod to her birth on the ocean.  Marina is raised there but the queen thinks that her beauty is crowding out that of the princess and the queen plots to kill her.  This murder is interrupted by pirates (really) and Marina is sold to a brothel in Ephesus.
In the brothel, Marina refuses to be corrupted.  She talks client after client out of taking her virginity.  She even gets the chance to impress Cerimon, one of the nobles of the city.
After all of this time has passed, Pericles has gone back to Tharsus to pick up his daughter.  There, he is told that she has died.  In grief he sails away.  He happens to sail past Ephesus where Cerimon meets him.  Cerimon tries to lighten his mood by presenting the excellent girl Marina.  Father and daughter meet and are thrilled.  They then sail to Mytilene and find Thaisa.  The family is all reunited.

As I said, it's a whirlwind.  It feels crazy busy.  At least, it reads that way.  Maybe it settles down when actually played on a stage.  The action is built on coincidences, like in most of the comedies.  The ending is happy, like in the comedies.  However, it doesn't seem happy.  The family has been split by tragedy after tragedy.  Even as they are reunited, we feel the years that they have senselessly lost. 
In some ways, this felt to me like a rewrite of 'Comedy of Errors'.  That play opens with six family members split up into four groups and scattered away from each other.  They have a series of chance encounters that all bring them back together and it all ends happily.  In both plays, the mother is the last one to be involved and she has been biding her time in a religious order.
But 'Comedy of Errors' seems to fit better in its setting.  Instead of half a dozen different Mediterranean ports, there is only one.  The action all takes place within one day.  And the stakes seem lower.  It is much, much easier to see happiness on the horizon.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

The History Plays - Shakespeare

Now that I'm done with all of Shakespeare's History plays, I wanted to sum them up with a post.  I won't try and rank them, like I did with the Comedies.  The history plays are too connected for that type of approach.  They have different aims than the stand alone stories of the comedies and tragedies.  (Besides, I have no idea if I prefer Henry IV part one or two better.  Maybe someone does, but I don't.)
There are ten plays in all and they come in two sets of four and two stand alone stories.  I read the 'Henriad' quartet first and I think that was lucky.  It let me read of a fairly straightforward history from the deposing of Richard II by Henry IV, to his son's journey from young Hal to the heroic Henry V.  I was able to read of the comparatively weak Henry VI and the passing of the throne back and forth with Edward IV and the final climb to the throne of Richard III.  (With a brief glimpse of poor Edward V.)  I can honestly say that I have a much, much firmer grasp on that time period of England than I did six months ago.
There are some very compelling stories throughout the group.  I doubt that I'll ever forget either of the Richards.  Richard II has been raised as a king and can hardly believe that his will isn't absolute.  When his crown is taken from him, it is as if a fundamental law of nature has been violated.  The sheer act causes his world to come apart.
Richard III has no such hang up over the sacred nature of the crown.  To him it is a goal that must be attained even at a heavy cost.  He will be king and he doesn't care who he upsets to do so.  Of course, the people of England decided he was a monster, so this was ultimately his downfall.
If there is a theme throughout the history plays, it is probably the questioning of who should enjoy power.  Who deserves it?  What is the natural line for power to follow?  Is the rule of the king absolute?  What do the people do if someone manifestly unworthy becomes king?  We don't think of modern power in terms of kings and crowns, but the questions of leadership and power are still very familiar.

The stand alones are comparative orphans.  King John was a somewhat weak king who lost the faith of his nobles.  He ended up being poisoned by a monk.  Henry VIII, though prettied up, was a man who reveled in the trappings of the throne but was ruthless towards those who got in his way.  He cruelly cast aside his first wife and was lucky to end up with the jewel that was Elizabeth I. 
Neither play is produced much anymore and it's hard to blame anyone for this.  If I was going to rank them, they would be ninth and tenth in some order.  They don't build to a greater story.  Both of them are fine reading, but I'd be surprised if any but completests read them nowadays.

I love the idea of the history plays.  I'd love to see a similar attempt made with American presidents.  They would have to dodge a minefield of propaganda that Shakespeare wasn't able to dodge, but so be it.  It would be worth it.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Henry VIII - Shakespeare

Henry VIII is a History play in the episodic form.  The play covers the highlights of the early part of Henry VIII's reign.  We open with the fall of Buckingham, one of the king's close advisors.  It's not clear if Buckingham was guilty or framed but he handles everything with grace.  Even as he is lead off to execution, he preaches piety and faith to the king.
Then we move on to the divorce with Katherine of Aragon.  This is preceded by a trial in which the legitimacy of the marriage is questioned.  The chief complaint is the lack of a male son, which seems to point to general disapproval on the union.  Katherine is shattered but she also is gracious.  She later dies in an aura of holiness.
Another king's advisor, this one named Wolsey, is caught with his hand in the cookie jar.  He is arrested and shamed.  He also dies with grace and humility. 
The king remarries, this time to Anne Bullen (Boleyn).  Everyone hopes for the best.  A daughter is born, the to-be Elizabeth I.  Much praise is heaped on her for she is the hope for a better future.

Henry VIII is an odd play.  It was written (we think) more than ten years after the previous history play, Henry V.  It probably was written as a collaboration.  It feels disjointed.  I'm glad I read it for completest reasons but I wouldn't really recommend it.
It's also interesting because of the timing of the play.  The last scene takes place in 1533.  The play was probably written about 1613, so the time span is much closer than in the other history plays.  This undoubtedly overshadows how the play is set up.  King Henry VIII is not a nice guy and his court was not a nice place.  But everyone accepts their fate and goes off to death or abandon without much difficulty.  It's not hard to see the censor's hands at work there.  (Or perhaps, that really was the prevailing feeling at the time and only later do we see the rougher spots?)  Whichever it is, this play feels like propaganda in the same way that Henry V does. 
There is a bit of trivia that brings the play to the forefront.  It was during a performance of this play that the Globe caught fire and burned down.  The performance was on June 29, 1613.  This is one of the most exact dates of Shakespearian performance available.  We don't know if the play was in its first run or if the script we have was rewritten at some point or not.  But this is more info than we have for many other plays.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Links to the Past

10 Interesting Myths About Shakespeare link

Plato and Aristotle on 'Brexit vs Bremain' (note, I have no opinion on the underlying politics, but I like the exercise of using the big guns to think through it)  link

In defense of reading dead white guys link

Thomas Hobbes and Captain America 'Civil War' link

The Most Beautiful Poems in the English Language link

The French Play Monopoly (Existential Comics) link