Friday, October 14, 2016

Book Brag

(Posted here because I'm not sure who because infrequent postings making this semi-private.)

In the past 14 months or so, I've read:

  • Moby Dick
  • The Brothers Karamazov
  • The Odyssey
  • Chaucer's Tales
  • Don Quixote
  • Tom Jones
  • All of Shakespeare's plays
  • now 1/4 of the way through War and Peace
This is easily the highest quality per average book that I've had in my life and I don't know that I'll ever approach it again.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Quotes from Shakespeare

This weekend, I was working with my daughter on some passages from Shakespeare.  (I wrote about this project many months ago.  The project got side-tracked but we decided to start over with the school year.)  The passage she was memorizing is that great one where Puck ends with "Lord, what fools these mortals be!".
I told her it was one of my favorites and that I'd used it for a little project of mine.  Back in April, in time for Shakespeare's birthday/death day anniversary, I prepared a quote from each play.  The idea was to hang them on trees in a park as an homage to 'As You Like It'.  It didn't happen then, because I couldn't find the right place, but I still have hopes for it.
Each quote has its own page.  I showed them too her and she leafed through each one, trying to read them cold.  If her reading didn't make sense, I'd read it again.  As she went through, she'd give little commentaries on how she liked this one and that one.
I couldn't help thinking, "These are hand picked quotes from Shakespeare of all people.  Of course you're going to like them!"

Friday, September 2, 2016

Moving Forward

(This is kind of a 'state of the blog' type post.)

I've finally started my college classes.  Yes, this is twenty some years later than it should have been, but it's happening.  My goal is to get a degree before any of my children do so it has to start happening.  Given that I've had time to read some a couple of dozen pieces from the Great Books and all of Shakespeare's plays, I should have time to study for class right now.
The thing is, I don't know exactly what the demands on my time will be like.  Right now I'm focusing on the school work and setting aside other projects.  Whether that will be true a month from now, I really don't know. 
These past two weeks have been the first time all year that I wasn't actively reading something from the Great Books.  I've missed them.  So I'm sure I'll be back to some extent but I don't know how much or when.  In other words, posting is probably going to get light around here.  Not non-existent.  I'm not closing down.  But lighter and less frequent.
I still have a few pieces that I've read but not written about and I'll try and get those blogged out in the next week or so.  Or I may write about things from class.  (I'm taking an Intro to Philosophy class and I'm sure I'll want to write about that.)
So...not goodbye, but, less often.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Books Read in August

My actual book reading was fairly limited in August.  I finished up Fielding's wonderful 'Tom Jones' and I'll write about that sometime soon.  Since then, I've wandered a bit through short stories and other things.  The biggest concentrated reading that I've done has been non-Shakespearean plays.  I've got an old text book called 'Masters of Modern Drama' and I've been reading through it.  In this past month, I've read several plays that are new to me:

  • Ibsen's 'Peer Gynt' - Loved this.  Peer Gynt is a larger than life story-teller/rogue from a small town in Norway.  He gets in serious trouble, is nearly married to a troll princess and then flees to the larger world.  Near the end of his life, he works hard to cheat death and goes through a journey of self-discovery.  Great stuff.
  • Ibesen's 'Ghosts' - A very realistic play about how societal rules require people to sin in the name of good and do good things in violation of law.  This is much more like the Ibsen that I've read in the past.  Disturbing and thought provoking.
  • Strindberg's 'Miss Julie' - Another play about societal bonds and the havoc they can wreak.  I thought it was only ok, but I can see how a good performance of this could be devastating.
  • Strindberg's 'The Ghost Sonata' - A dreamlike play, again with the hint of death and a strong sense of people having far too much control over others. 
  • Maeterlinck's 'The Intruder' - This is a short, atmospheric play that could be terrifying.  It all takes place in one room as a family gathers with a blind grandfather.  They all sense...something...come into the house.  They fear for death.  Shivers!
  • von Hofmannshtal's 'Death and the Fool' - Another short play about death, but this one all in verse.  I'll have to take another run at this when I'm in the right place, but as it is, I think I rushed through and missed out.
  • Synge's 'Playboy of the Western World' - An interesting Irish drama about how glamour and infamy can change people.  Apparently it caused riots when it first appeared on stage.
  • Yeat's 'At the Hawk Well' - A small, very arty play by William Butler Yeats, better known as a poet.  This is the type of play that people think of when they think of artists making art only for artists.
  • Cocteau's 'Orpheus' - Another arty play, but I loved this one.  A retelling of Orpheus with some modern twists and some stage trickery.  Would love to see it on the stage.
This is a fine text book and I'll probably keep working through it over time. 

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Discourse on Political Economy - Rousseau

Rousseau's 'Discourse on Political Economy' was published in 1755.  It's one of the body of important works that appeared in the 17th and 18th century as various thinkers in England and France were trying to figure out what good governance was.  This means that a) it was important and influential for the people who were trying to figure out what a post-monarchal government would look like and b) it has little impact today because we've already internalized many of its arguments.
It's not a long work; less than 20 pages in the actual Great Books volume.  The reading style is simple and accessible.  I'd recommend it as interesting, but its not vital in the way that some other works are. 
One interesting element of it, is that it is the earliest work I've read with some of the mainstream arguments that are found in todays political left.
It is therefore one of the most important functions of government to prevent extreme inequality of fortunes; not by taking away wealth from its possessors, but by depriving all men of means to accumulate it; not by building hospitals for the poor, but by securing the citizens from becoming poor.

This statement would be at home in many modern political campaigns.  Of course, the tricky part is remembering that Rousseau was writing at a period of time when literal classes of people existed, the wealthiest with special rights when it came to land and wealth.  The modern situation is somewhat different.  The overall idea that one of the prime functions of government is to keep the poor from poverty is alive and well though.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Don Quixote (Part 2) - Cervantes

The first part of 'Don Quixote' ends with the poor deluded knight being taken back to his village to recover from his adventures.  The second part starts with a visiting scholar talking to Quixote and Sancho Panza about the book that was published about them.  The two put their heads together and marvel that any author could possibly know about their adventures in such detail.  Quixote concludes that this was the work of a sorcerer and Sancho has no choice but to go along with him.
The two set out again but big changes have happened.  1) Everyone knows about them and 2) both of them are fully aware that they are creating a legend.  It is as if they have become conscious characters in a book.  This creates an enormous feeling of meta-fiction.  The reader is reading about a book that knows it is a book.
Again, they have crazy adventures but now another level has been added.  Don Quixote meets another knight who claims to have beaten the famous Don Quixote in battle.  (It turns out that this other knight has an ulterior motive for baiting him into a fight.)  He meets people who tell him about Don Quixote.  In the first book he was creating his own legend.  Now it is growing on its own and he must live up to it.
This book also brings about a blossoming of Sancho Panza.  He speaks in aphorisms.  In fact, he becomes famous for speaking in aphorisms.  At one point he is appointed governor of a town.  Sancho is unaware that the whole thing is a gag being put upon him, but he gamely tries his best. 
I laughed time and time again.  I marveled that Cervantes could keep coming up with new ideas to get his two heroes into trouble and back out again.  I loved it.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Links to the Past

Search for the real Troy link

Make Athens Great Again link

Ancient Olympian Record broken link

What Enlightenment Philosophers Would Have Thought of Trump link

Athenian Park (Existential Comics) link

Thursday, August 18, 2016

All Done - Shakespeare

That's it.  I've read, and now written about all of Shakespeare's plays.  This little side project started right before New Year's Day and finished up the first week of July.  That's 38 plays in about 27 weeks (and serves as a testament to just how much time I'm on hold while working).
What did I learn?  There were some unexpected things.  After I'd read six or eight plays, the language made complete sense to me.  I could go from phrase to phrase without looking to see if there was an insult or praise or what.  You 'get' it.  Since Elizabethan English is something of a foreign language, this is a big deal.
Another thing was that I didn't realize just how much concern there was for adultery and cuckoldry.  These are themes that come up nearly constantly.  We still think about adultery now, but I can't remember the last modern story I read/watched that had any concern over the parentage of a child.  There is always a danger of over-reading, but I couldn't help but wonder if Elizabethans really, really worried about raising a cuckoo.
In a related note, we don't write love stories like they did back then either.  Shakespeare wrote about eternal love, or at least a willingness to die for your love, without a second thought.  Our more common story today, features a 'more fish in the sea' type perspective.  In fact, if you wrote a modern day Romeo and Juliet story, the lovers would probably be seen as creepy in their singlemindedness.  (I doubt that this is an improvement as a culture.)
I fell in love with some of the couples.  Yes, with Romeo and Juliet, because of the purity of their love.  But also with the delightful Rosalind and Orlando.  And I felt very deep sympathy for poor Desdemona, who might have gotten the rawest deal in the whole canon.
I also learned about responsibility.  The tragedies and history plays are simply steeped in the idea of being responsible.  King Lear dooms himself by setting aside a part of his responsibility.  Henry IV (both parts) are consumed with fears that the young prince Hal won't live up to his responsibility.  Fortunately, in Henry V, he becomes a full out hero.  Shakespeare wrote quite about being responsible with power and having that power be legitimate.  I'd rather see the entire line of tragedies judged by questions of power and responsibility than by questions of 'fatal flaws'.
There were shocking moments, like Titus Andronicus and his own hand.  Or Gloucester's poor eyes.  One of the most deeply touching moments was when Richard II was made to hand over his beloved and rightful crown.  Simply devastating.
One of the most unexpected things for me, is that I couldn't stop trying to figure out how I would stage each of the productions.  I've done work on the stage but I've always been to jealous to watch from the audience.  Reading this time, I couldn't help but think of how to perform each work.  Maybe I'll have the kids doing the plays for the neighborhood?
Speaking of which, another unexpected joy was being able to share Shakespeare with my children.  This mean some memorization for them, which was great.  But there was also a time in the spring when I would walk the older ones to the bus stop and tell them the plot of one of the plays.  I loved it, of course, but they began to look forward to it too.
I think a seed has been planted.

This project wasn't hard, it just took some time and a willingness to stick to it.  The lists (pictured above) also helped.  Like many parts of the Great Books project, I wish I'd done this years ago.  At least I can say that I've done it now.

Monday, August 15, 2016

The Tragedies - Shakespeare

I have, after some time, finally finished writing about Shakespeare's tragedies.  Five of them were covered earlier in the year and I finished the other five later.  The full list (in rough chronological order of writing):

Titus Andronicus
Romeo and Juliet
Julius Caesar
King Lear
Timon of Athens
Antony and Cleopatra

As a set, this is the weightiest of Shakespeare's works.  The Book 'Drama 100' which tries to rank the 100 best plays of all time has no fewer than four of these tragedies in the top seven.  These are the works that Shakespeare is best remembered for. 
I won't try and rank them (though Timon and Coriolanus would be at the bottom if I did).  Several of them were new to me.  I'd never read King Lear before and I think I need to go through it about three more times before I even begin to have my head around it. 
Of the other new ones, Antony and Cleopatra might be my favorite.  Cleopatra is just incredible.  She makes the stage sizzle.  It's enough to make you envious Antony and pity his helplessness.  This must be an incredible role to play.
The most surprising to me was probably Titus Andronicus.  This is one of Shakespeare's earliest plays and it doesn't have the gravitas of his latter, better works.  But it does have a heat to it.  The play works.  It's almost Shakespeare by way of Stephen King, but that's ok. 
I also admired the artistry of Othello.  Iago is a master conjurer of jealousy.  A top five villain (though behind Aaron from Titus).  I also had more respect for the role of Desdemona.  That's another wonderful part.

For some time, there was a theory that every subject of a tragedy must have a 'fatal flaw' that creates their own downfall.  This theory is a tough one to stick with if you ready a number of the plays in a short time.  The main subjects are certainly flawed, but some flaws are huge and others are minor. 
Take Othello, for instance.  He (perhaps) allowed jealousy to destroy him because he had a certain uneasiness with his place in society.  That wasn't his fault.  He was distrusted an maltreated simply because of his skin color.  The fault for that lies in the larger society. 
Not to mention that such a reading lets Iago off of the hook completely.  In fact, there are villains in almost all of the tragedies beside the title character.  We can't really go after Macbeth without talking about what a piece of work Lady Macbeth was.  Romeo and Juliet came to a tragic end, but the main fault lies with their parents and the overall war between their families.  Timon of Athens, does not deserve the same type of blame as Titus Andronicus. 
That entire theory is flawed, probably beyond repair.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Leviathan (Part 2) - Hobbes

(I wrote about the first part here.)

Hobbes wrote 'Leviathan' in the mid 1600's.  It's important to understand that England was in the midst of a long period of argument over how its government should operate.  The normal government in Europe at the time was that of a monarchy, but the English Civil War upset that.  Now there were questions about whether there should be a king and, if so, what kind of powers would that king have.  Hobbes tried to reason some of this out.  He defined a huge number of things, basically in an Aristotelian attempt to get his arms around the conceptual problems.  This means that his writing is somewhat dry for us moderns.  Much of what he talked about more than 300 years ago, is old hat for us now.  It's important, though, to recognize just what he was trying to do in an historical sense.
The second part of 'Leviathan' deals with attempts to define what a commonwealth is, what different types and what kind of powers it has.  He defines each and sets some idea of where the limits are.  Again, this makes sense to us now, but at the time it was fairly radical.
For instance, Hobbes talks about how each individual gives up some of their liberty in order to be part of the commonwealth.  The commonwealth, as a whole, must have some level of power and it can't stop to assure each individual as it exercises that power.  The easiest illustration of this is with police forces.  Individuals can't seek justice by punishing wrong-doers.  They give that power over to an objective police force.
There is much to disagree with him in specifics, but that really isn't the point of reading something like this.  The importance is in the exercise.  We take our current set up for granted, without thinking of the underlying philosophy involved.  Hobbes didn't, and he inspired others (like the Founding Fathers of the US) to work through the hard stuff.
Worth reading for style, if not for detail.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Hamlet - Shakespeare

I blogged about Hamlet, all the way back in Year One here

I've been stuck on how exactly to blog about 'Hamlet' since I don't know what else to say about it.  After reading it again, I'm still struck by how ambiguous the evidence is that Hamlet is asked to work with.  He's emotionally wrenched over the death of his father and the betrayal of his mother.  A figure appears to him (and him only!) and asks him to kill the king out of revenge.  We don't know if this is real or a figment of his imagination.  We don't know if Hamlet's actions are madness or him pretending to be mad.
We do (eventually) find out that Claudius, the new king, is indeed guilty of murder and I can't help but wonder if that helps the story or not.  We never find out if Gertrude, Hamlet's mother, is complicit or not.  We see little of what passes between Hamlet and Ophelia.  Their relationship comes to us through the twisted lens of Ophelia's father, Polonius.  To an extraordinary extent, 'Hamlet' asks us to fill in the gaps of what is happening.

A few years back, I ran across a story of someone who reads 'Hamlet' again and again.  I thought of that many times while rereading here.  There is just so much that is happening here, that it's tough to get your arms around it all.  The editor in my brain wanted to cut down the story to make it more manageable.  Perhaps, with so many rereadings, the rest would fit into some kind of place. 
This isn't the only play of Shakespeare's that I feel could use that approach.  I don't feel like I have a good handle on 'King Lear' for instance.  With both plays, I want to walk around and look at them from many different angles and see what pieces begin to fit together.  They both give me the inescapable feeling that I'm not seeing the whole.
There is a related feeling that makes me want to return to the other tragedies.  I can understand what happens in 'Othello' and in 'Romeo and Juliet'.  'Macbeth' isn't hard to understand from a high level, though, like the others, there are gems that require some digging.  For a bit, I wondered if we could somehow start Shakespeare from zero, would 'Hamlet' still rise to the heights that it has?  Then I remembered that as other cultures have discovered Shakespeare, 'Hamlet' has risen.  It has a power that is far bigger than that of the weight of tradition.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Macbeth - Shakespeare

I read 'Macbeth' a couple of years ago for the Great Books and blogged about it here.  You can compare the readings if you'd like, though the older one is pretty bare.  As before, I'll say that the mechanics of the story are fairly well known.  Macbeth is promised the crown by the witches.  His wife is quickly on board and pushes him into murder.  He does, and death follows death.  In the end, the witches have tricked him and he dies alone.
While rereading the play, I wondered about the Macbeths.  If Lady Macbeth doesn't push him, does he just sit back and see if nature plops the crown in his lap?  If he stands up to her, would she have let it drop?  Oh, not easily, I'm sure, but if he told her to banish such thoughts as killing his lord and guest, would she have gone and done it without him?  That's hard for me to imagine.
I also couldn't help but compare Macbeth the man to that or Richard III.  They both climbed over a pile of corpses to put themselves on a throne, but Richard III seemed happy as he did it.  He delighted in the game, the sport.  They both saw ghosts of the departed but only Macbeth was truly shaken by them.

What a role is Lady Macbeth!  She is really the living embodiment of the term 'bloodthirsty'.  She gets wonderful speeches throughout.  The role even calls for one of the better crazy bits with the whole 'out damned spot' business.  The only thing it lacks is an onstage death.
Of all of Shakespeare's women in tragedies, she is the most guilty.  Her death is fully deserved.  In fact, you can persuasively argue that she gets off easy.  Still, what a role...

My favorite speech comes near the end:

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

What a gloriously dark passage!  Gives me the shivers. 

Monday, August 1, 2016


With another new month, I thought I'd do something of a state of progress post.  I have one new piece in mind for August, which is:

Pascal - The Provincial Letters

I'm still working on Fielding's wonderful 'History of Tom Jones, a Foundling' though I'm almost done.  I don't think I'll tackle another of the Great Books literature works until 'War and Peace' later this year. 
I'm behind on writing up several of the pieces that I have read, including some Hobbes, Rousseau and the second half of Cervantes 'Don Quixote'.  I also have two Shakespeare plays left to write up and then some overall omnibus pieces on the entire works.  (Bonus points if you can figure out which ones.)  All of this has been read, I just need to write it up.  I've finished 23 different pieces so far this year and my (soft) goal of 30 is well within view.
I have ideas on some other features for the rest of the year but I'm holding off on making any kind of commitment to them.  I've (finally) applied for college and want to get that degree.  My eight year old daughter is starting to think about college and her questions about why I didn't go are becoming painful. 
So far this has been a very good year.  I'm hoping that the last the last five months go well.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Books Read in July

July felt like a busy month for reading.

Great Books, by David Denby - I chanced on this book while at a used bookstore.  Denby is a film critic who had something of a mid-life crisis and decided to go back to school and take some humanities classes at Columbia.  He'd taken them years before but couldn't remember the impact of the various readings so he went back.  The results are quite book.
This book is arranged, chapter by chapter, by which author is being read.  This allows Denby to concentrate on what he read and how it affected him.  He also talks quite a bit about the war on 'dead white men'.  His conclusion is that the readings of the western canon are too much in conflict and invite too much self inspection to be ably accused of setting up hegemony.  I quite agree.
Night, by Elie Wiesel - I've had this book on my shelf for years but had never read it.  When I heard of Wiesel's death, I finally made time to do so.  'Night' is Wiesel's account of being rounded up and taken into the Jewish holocaust.  It starts with ignoring a warning from an escapee and takes him through various camps.  Near the end, death is everywhere.
'Night' is like a punch to the gut.  The experience related is so incredibly awful.  Wiesel writes not only about the physical atrocities but also about his loss of faith and larger humanity.  Fathers and sons are destroyed and destroyed so completely that they have trouble caring if the other survived.  Incredible book.
Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehsi Coates - This is the most recent of the books that I read in July and it seemed almost taken from the headlines.  Coates has written a booklength letter to his son about the problems he will have growing up as a black man.  The biggest problem is that his physical safety will be at risk because of a society that doesn't care about the safety of black men.
This book is something of a personal history as Coates narrates how his approach to the world was created.  It's touching and eye-opening.  I was reading this while two very high profile deaths of black men by police happened.  While I didn't agree with everything written here, Coates is right that this part of the system is absolutey broken.  Very well worth reading.
A Room of One's Own, by Virginia Woolf - This choice was inspired by Denby's 'Great Books'.  Back in 1928, Woolf was asked to give a lecture on 'Women and Fiction'.  She made up the lightly fictionalized experience of a 'Mary Beton' and talked about how women were systematically excluded from the broad opportunities of school and learning.  She shares how the simple expedient of having some dependable money to live on and a room of one's own are the minimal keys to allow someone to write.  She then explores how rare these opportunities have been for women.
The most devastating part of this lecture to me was an extended thought experiment on how a sister of Shakespeare would have been treated.  Her poetic talents wouldn't have been fed through schooling.  She would have been forced to marry by her parents.  Even if she'd run away to the big city (like William did), she wouldn't be able to work in the theater.  And if her trying to do so, her chastity was lost, she could end up being fully rejected by society.
This was also a great read.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Links to the Past

Vatican digitizes a 1600 year old manuscript of the Aeneid link

Why China's love affair with Shakespeare endures link

The man who invented fiction: What we owe to Cervantes link

Where we get Hercules 12 labors from link

Zeno and Zeno (Existential Comics) link

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Letter Concerning Toleration - Locke

Locke's 'A Letter Concerning Toleration'  seems a bit odd at times, because the message is so completely obvious.  Locke says 'I esteem that toleration to be the chief characteristic of the true Church' and then backs up this observation at length.  I liked this bit:
The toleration of those that differ from others in matters of religion is so agreeable to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and to the genuine reason of mankind, that it seems monstrous for men to be so blind as not to perceive the necessity and advantage of it in so clear a light.

And this:
I esteem it above all things necessary to distinguish exactly the business of civil government from that of religion and to settle the just bounds that lie between the one and the other.

That still seems like a tricky distinction to some, but mostly now because of our difficulties with drawing barriers for government actions.  As I said, the message is obvious because this has been our reality for some time but we must remember that when Locke wrote this, England was in convulsions over how people worship.  Today we see little difference between Catholics and mainline protestant worshipers but the distinction then was big enough to cause wars.
One interesting note is that Locke does not preach tolerance to atheists.  He was afraid that their disconnect from belief in God would make them wholly amoral and untrustworthy.  I don't know what he would have thought of the Deism of Jefferson or similar.
This piece is interesting and short, but more of historical interest now than a guide to personal behavior.  Yes, we should let people worship how they will, especially without the guidance or interference of the state.  Yes, it's wrong and un-Christian to try to physically force people to worship in a certain way. 
But we know that now.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Timon of Athens - Shakespeare

Timon is a wealthy man of Athens.  He is generous with his wealth, perhaps to a fault.  Near the opening of the play, he casually assists a friend of his with money so that he can be married.  The word 'casual' is perhaps the best way to describe his finances.  He gives gifts and feasts to all of his friends. 
This drives his steward, Flavius, mad.  Timon's wealth is all draining away and, try as he might, he cannot get his master to take the problem seriously.  This is true, right up until several creditors appear at the same time and demand their money immediately.  Flavius can't pay them and Timon at last understands his problems. 
The word quickly goes out to Timon's friends that he is in difficulty and they are asked to give a little to help him out.  All of them find reasons to beg off from helping him.  Timon's generosity has destroyed him and the ingratitude of his former friends has rubbed salt in his wounds.  Timon invites them over for one last feast and serves them nothing but warm water.
Timon then retreats to the woods to become something of a cynical hermit and misanthrope.  He hates all humanity and if anyone comes across him in the woods, he isn't afraid to let them have it.  After several such encounters, we finally learn that he has died and left not one, but two different epitaphs cursing everyone that dares come near his grave.

This wasn't my favorite of Shakespeare's tragedies, by a long shot.  Timon's generosity is overdone and the reaction of his suitors is too.  Both seem more like cartoons than real people.  The final acts are unrelentingly bitter and angry.  Timon doesn't appear flawed so much as stupid.
There are a couple of sub-plots that I skated over.  There is a philosopher named Apemantus who is something of the cynical bent.  The script describes him as 'churlish' and that might be.  Frankly the man is an ass and no one wants to be near him.  Near the end, Timon competes with him to see who can be more unbearable.  They both lose.
There is also a subplot regarding Alcibiades, an Athenian captain who is exiled from Athens.  He returns with soldiers to wreak havoc on his former city in much the same way that Coriolanus does.  Athens is weak and fat and the message is that they deserve such treatment. 
Probably they do.  If a theme of King Lear is disaster brought down upon the undeserved, then a theme of Timon is that the deserved will get their disaster good and hard.  It's not the most cheerful of plays. 
Frankly, I didn't care for it. 

Monday, July 25, 2016

Romeo and Juliet - Shakespeare

This may be Shakespeare's most well known story, so I won't bother with a plot recap.  Instead, I'll just jump into the parts that interested me most.

I was in this play more than twenty years ago (back when I had hair and looked like my profile picture), but I hadn't reread it since.  I've seen the Baz Lurhman version and the movie 'Shakespeare in Love' which features the story prominently.  (I own both of them.)  But I haven't read through it.
I was amazed at how fresh the language seemed to me.  Large chunks of it came back, most from the spaces where I was on stage.  An enormous amount seemed familiar to me.  But it isn't stale.  The language is still fresh and authentic.  It isn't hard to imagine the teenage love of Juliet and Romeo producing that set of thoughts and words.
When the two lovers talk about each other, it creates some of the greatest love poetry ever.  They have given each other over to love, perhaps in the way that only teenagers without the scars of previous refusal can.  It is the way that we want to feel about being in love.

How many times do the lovers actually meet?
1. They first meet at the party.
2. Shortly after, they meet in the garden/balcony.
3. The next day(!) they are secretly married.
4. After killing Tybalt, Romeo visits Juliet for their wedding night.  They part in the morning.
5. They meet in the tomb, each thinking the other dead.  They kill themselves.

Five meetings in total.  Only four while living.  It's a very quick love story.  Of interest, to me, at least, this makes the story more closely fit into Aristotle's theory of unity of theater.  The action takes place not in one day, but over the space of just a few days.
I have no idea if Shakespeare had that in mind when he wrote this.  His earlier tragedy did not fit this pattern and of course the histories take place over a lengthy time period.  His comedies are a bit more hit and miss, with at least fairly compressed time spans.  Of the tragedies, however, I believe this one takes the shortest amount of calendar time.

As adults, we can cynically sit back and wonder about this.  If my children, when they become teens, become so passionately wrapped up in love as Juliet or Romeo, I would be worried.  I would constantly urge them to patience and time.  (My personal theory is that we don't know who anyone will be until about the age of 22.)  One reading of the play is that they burned so bright and so fast because they were young.  If they could have slowed down, they could have averted tragedy.
Maybe.  Though Shakespeare gives them a spur.  Juliet is to be wed to Paris, who is something of a blank.  This wedding will be quick, a weeks notice or less.  They don't really have time for patience.
If anything, the warning here should be not to force your 13 year old daughter to marry someone.

I loved reading this again.  My daughter is almost nine.  She knows the bare outlines of the story, but not the heart of it yet.  I look forward to sharing it with her, and the boys, when they are old enough.  Such beauty.
I don't exactly envy teens who have fallen in love, but I recognize how wonderful/terrible it can be.  It is a prime human experience.  Shakespeare captures the wonderful/terrible aspect of it as well as anyone has.  This is a great play. 

Monday, July 18, 2016

Titus Andronicus - Shakespeare

We open the curtain on a Roman general, Titus Andronicus, returning from a conquest over the Goths.  He has brought back a Gothic queen, Tamora, and several of her sons.  He is quickly convinced to sacrifice one of the sons to the gods.  Tamora pleads for mercy but he won't hear of it and the son is killed.  Titus will come to regret this.
I won't go through the entire plot, because it is complicated and, more importantly, I greatly enjoyed reading it as it unfolded.  Revenge is sought and gained.  This brings about even more revenge in more and more terrible forms.  And I do mean terrible.  'Titus Andronicus' is one of Shakespeare's earliest and most bloody plays.  (Even more than Macbeth, though perhaps not as famously.) 
In this play we get rape and mutilation.  We get family killing each other.  We get people tricked into mutilating themselves.  And (most famously) we get people killed and secretly baked into food.  This play is a parade of horribles.
We also get passionate family love.  We get breathtaking treachery.  And we get, in Aaron, one of Shakespeare's best written villains.  Aaron is a Moor, i.e. black, and I'm sure that his role doesn't not reflect well on Shakespeare's racial sensibilities or the time in which it was written.  But he is clever and ruthless and also tender and loving. 

Did I enjoy the play?  I did.  While it doesn't have the high nobility of the later tragedies, it does have a plot with a lot of push.  As I was reading it, I very much wanted to know what would happen next.  It's fascinating in a horrible way, but still fascinating. 
I was reading about a performance in England back in the 50's where they tried to stay true to the violence in the text.  The audience was greatly upset with people fainting and having to leave early because they were so upset.   I can see how that would be the case.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Light Blogging

Apologies for the lack of posts.  This week turned crazy busy.  Next week I'll be away from the computer completely, so it will be slow (except for a schedule post or two).  Hopefully things will get back to normal after that.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Gargantua and Pantagruel - Rabelais

(This concerns books 3 and 4 only.)

With book three, we rejoin Pantagruel and his friend Panurge.  Panurge now has some money to himself and there is a lengthy discussion about whether or not he should marry.  Pantagruel says that he should but Panurge is afraid that he will be cuckolded; that his wife will sleep around on him.  They agree to consult various sources for advice.  This includes wisemen, learned men, married men.  It also includes various forms of fortune telling.  The answer is remarkably uniform: if he marries, his wife will sleep around and he will end up beaten and robbed.
Panurge refuses all of these answers.  He constantly finds ways to deflect and reimagine the advice or prediction.  In this, he shows off high abuse of logic in every way imaginable.  He also shows disrespect for every level of authority he can find.  I laughed and laughed.
In book four, the two friends go on a long sea voyage so that they can consult with an oracle known as the 'Divine Bottle'.  This trip reminded me of Gulliver's Travels, in that they go to many different bizarre and absurd places.  The strangest is an island of 'Chitterlings', which are sausage like beings.  They fight against Pantagruel until a giant pig flies overhead and excretes mustard over everyone.  The book ends without a satisfying conclusion.  There is a fifth book but there is great doubt as to whether it was written by Rabelais.  It was published some years after his death.  There is speculation that it contains materials of his that were then polished up by someone else or not.  I didn't read it.

Rabelais is something of an acquired taste.  He is disrespectful of authority, writes outrageous things about women, is incredibly fond of bathroom humor and is very, very funny.  I wouldn't recommend him to everyone, but he has an important role in Western thought (as I've argued here).  We need to be able to laugh at those in power and Rabelais helps us in this.  I love that he is included in the Great Books of the Western World.
Not that his role is as easy as others to communicate.  Last year I read a book called 'Dead White Guys' by Matt Buriesci.  The author wrote this book as a gift to his young daughter for when she turns 18.  He read through the first year of the ten year plan and wrote about each of the pieces.  Except one.  He skips Rabelais. 
I don't blame him for this.  I would be hard pressed to really explain to my young children why Rabelais was important and why he still is important.  For one, they have no trouble questioning my authority and two, they're already too fond of bathroom jokes for my taste. 
One other small note: the ten year reading plan divides Rabelais in an awful manner.  His first two books come up in the first year.  The second two don't arrive until the seventh year.  Putting six years (and more than 100 other works) between the two sections is outrageous. 

Friday, July 8, 2016

Links to the Past

Shakespeare's politics and his sonnets link

Reddit thread: What's the most intellectual joke you know link

Reflections on Athenian democracy from today's Britain link

Early encounters with Shakespeare link

Intellectual Value of Modern Philosophy link

Socratesman (Existential Comics) link 

Thursday, July 7, 2016

The Romances - Shakespeare

There are only five plays that are commonly put into Shakespeare's 'romance' category. 

The Winter's Tale
The Tempest
Two Noble Kinsmen

Of the five, I liked the Tempest the most and The Winter's Tale the least.  Of the other three, I'd probably change the ranking from day to day.  As a group, I didn't like them as much as the comedies.  (Or the histories or tragedies, for that matter.)
From what I've read, in the latter stages of Shakespeare's career, his productions moved from a larger, more open theater to a smaller, more intimate one.  It's been suggested that this created a desire for more effect laden shows.  (I have no idea if that's true.)  If so, the plays suffer from being read and not watched.
It's also been noted that the later part of Shakespeare's career involved a different type of language construction and I can attest to that.  As each play started, it was hard for me to get into what was being talked about.  The speech is more convoluted and most be followed very closely.  I didn't care for it, though I understand that others may feel differently.

The feel of the romances is very different than the comedies.  The love stories are secondary.  There is death and injury everywhere, both threatened and realized.  The main men are largely unsympathetic.  I smiled and chuckled at times while reading the comedies, but not here.  They all end happily (to an extant), usually with family reunions, but they all feel like hard fought escapes rather than light fun.
Other connections?  Appeals to Roman gods.  With the exception of the Tempest, the Roman gods are all appealed to, or actually make an appearance.  They guide the players towards a conclusion, for good or ill.  I don't know why this is and I wouldn't have noticed it if I hadn't read them all in a tight timeframe.
Also, this is an era of simply outstanding names.  From 'Pericles' we get characters such as Thaisa and Leonine.  (Not to mention the title character.)  From 'Cymbeline', we get Imogen.  'Winter's Tale' gives us Hermione and Perdita.  'The Tempest' has such wonderful names as Prospero, Ariel and Caliban.  And finally, 'Two Noble Kinsmen' has Artesius and Emilia.  I'm sure that baby-naming books get a workout from these five plays.

These five weren't my favorites (though I'm glad I can now say that I've read them).  If these were representative of the full Shakespeare canon, he would not nearly be so well thought of today.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Two Noble Kinsmen - Shakespeare

'Two Noble Kinsmen' opens with the Duke of Athens, Theseus, and his new wife Hippolyta, being asked by three queens to come to their aid.  Their kings have been killed by the city of Thebes but the king there, Creon, won't allow them to be buried with proper rights.  Theseus goes to war with Thebes.  In battle, he captures two Creon's nephews, Palamon and Arcite.  It is generally agreed that they were outstanding in war.  Theseus decides to hold them prisoner.
Palamon and Arcite quickly become the stars of the prison.  These two cousins are fast friends and exemplars of cousinly love.  Until they spot Emilia, Hippolyta's sister.  They both fall for her and quickly denounce the other for daring to intrude on that love. 
Arcite is freed on bail but refuses to leave the kingdom.  He hides and disguises himself.  He then becomes a member of Theseus' court so he can be near Emilia.  Palamon breaks free from prison with the help of a jailor's daughter.  He also seeks out Emilia so he can be near her. 
The two cousins meet and after much friendly discussion, decide to settle the matter in combat to the death.  Theseus and his court come upon them and stop the fight.  The court is overwhelmed with the nobility of the cousins and they beg Emilia to choose one of the suitors.  She can't.  Instead, the cousins are bound to come back in one month and do battle for her.
Before the battle takes place, the members of the love triangle all make pledges at shrines for Mars, Venus and Diana.  (Or, loosely, War, Love and Virginity.) Each is given a sign in response.  The battle takes place and Arcite bests Palamon.  But before a wedding can take place, Arcite's horse throws him and busts his head.  He gives his blessing to Palamon and dies. 

I didn't know this beforehand, but this is Shakespeare retelling the Knight's story from Chaucer, which I just read in May.  Almost all of Shakespeare is a retelling but this is the first time that I have read the source story first.  It's interesting to see how the two great authors emphasize different elements of the story.  With Chaucer, there was much more of a gloss on the fine chivalry of the event.  Shakespeare leavens that with a side story of the jailor's daughter who was used and thrown away.  (I felt very sorry for her.)
Shakespeare also feels more grounded than Chaucer.  The people feel more real than the more legendary feel from the Knight's tale.  I'd give the edge to the Bard, but both versions are enjoyable. 

There are some very good roles here, but the one that interested me most was Emilia.  She is a girl of high status who suddenly finds that these two guys (boys? men? teens?) are fighting for her love.  The choice is up to her and if she can't make a choice then one of them will kill the other.  Talk about being put on the spot! 
She can't choose and she feels awful about this.  I would love to see a modern retelling with the focus on Emilia.  How does she sort through all of this?  How far should she go to avoid bloodshed?  And yes, this is all wildly unfair to her.  Even at the end, as she agrees to marry Arcite, he is suddenly killed and she gets to marry Palamon.  How awful!

Most of the romance plays have disputed authorship issues.  'Two Noble Kinsmen' has less of a dispute and more broad agreement that this was written as a partnership.  The version I read points out some of the probable areas that are not Shakespeare.  This includes a prologue and an epilogue and neither of them is especially noteworthy.
Is it still worth reading?  Yeah, I think it is.  It would crack the top half of the comedies in my mind, but there is still a good story here.  I would enjoy seeing a production of it.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

The Winter's Tale - Shakespeare

The Winter's Tale starts with the trouble a-brewing.  The king of Bohemia, Polixenes, has been visiting his dear friend the king of Sicilia, Leontes.  Apparently the stay has been a long one as Leontes is urging him to stay a bit longer but Polixenes is anxious to go.  As an aside, Leontes is certain that Polixenes has been invading his marriage bed and has knocked up the queen of Sicilia, Hermione.  He is so certain of this, that he is planning killing the visiting king and requests that one of his lords off him.
This lord, Camillo, won't do it.  In fact, he tells Polixenes of the danger and all flee to Bohemia.  Leontes is so certain of the guilt that he publicly accuses Hermione of adultery.  She is sent off to prison where she gives birth.  Leontes demands that the child be sent off to the wilderness and left for dead.
There is some back and forth about a trial but the upshot is that the queen is declared guilty and then quickly dead.  Also, Leontes has asked for a word from the Oracle and defied it.  As soon as he does so, his grown son is reported dead.  Leontes is very upset that he has lost his whole family.  (No kidding!)
The child, Perdita, is indeed taken off to the wilderness by a defender of the queen's named Antigonus.  As soon as he arrives in the wild, he meets a bear and is famously chased offstage.  ('Exit pursued by a bear.')  Perdita is found by a shepherd and saved.
Many years pass (in a speech literally given by Time) and things pull together about how you'd expect.  Polixenes son, Mamillius, meets Perdita and falls in love.  They flee Bohemia and end up in Sicilia where they are taken in front of the king.  They've been chased there by Polixenes himself and together, the kings reconcile.  Leontes realizes that this is his lost daughter and all that is needed for a full reunion is his poor queen Hermione, dead all these years.  But it turns out ok, as she has been hiding as a statue for some time.  Everything ends happily.

Leontes jealousy in the beginning is very reminiscent of Othello, though this time we don't get any of the front story.  In some ways, he also reminded me of King Lear, tearing his family apart without any mercy or forethought at all.  The roof caves in on him and I'm sure the audience feels like he ends up getting off easy. 
This play might have the greatest collection of names in all of Shakespeare.  JK Rowling got 'Hermione' from here, but Polixenes and Perdita are both great.  In fact, both would be good names for a pair of kittens...  As would Leontes, Dion and Florizel.  The name work here is really spectacular.

Did I like the play?  I don't know.  Leontes seems so heavy handed that you can't identify with him.  The threads for the happy ending are so obvious as to be bothersome.  The only real surprise is that of the 'statue' coming to life at the end.  It's hard for me to see how that would work well without seeming hokey.  Maybe it's better on the stage than from a book, but I wasn't thrilled by it.

Thursday, June 30, 2016


Now that 'Don Quixote' and 'Leviathan' are all done, it's time to pick the next pieces to read.  They will be:
  • Tom Jones - Fielding
  • Letter Concerning Toleration - Locke
July has a big blob of vacation in it, so I don't know how the reading schedule will go.  No matter, I'm well ahead of any schedule I would have set for the year.  Through the end of June, I have finished 21 of the remaining 59 on the Great Books list.  The original plan sets a goal of 18 per year, so I'm pretty pleased with this progress.  In addition, I've read through almost all of Shakespeare's plays and still had time for the personal reading that I enjoy.

I'm very behind in actually writing up what I've read though.  I owe pieces on Rabelais, Hobbes and the second book of 'Don Quixote'.  I've written up 31 of Shakespeare's plays, so seven more to go.  (Only two more to actually read.)  And I have about half a dozen posts in mind about themes within Shakespeare.  (I know, I know, this blog has become very Shakespeare heavy.  If that bothers you, well, give it some time and I'll be done with it.  My Shakespearean revels soon are ended.)  I'm not sure when I'll get caught up on the writing but once I'm done reading two plays a week, time issues should straighten themselves out. 
Until then, thanks for sticking with me!

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Don Quixote (Book One) - Cervantes

The basic idea behind Cervantes' brilliant 'Don Quixote' is well known.  An older man has read so many of the books on romantic chivalry that he loses his mind on the subject.  He goes out and decides to become one of the knights he has read about.  After a brief outing to be knighted by an innkeeper, he returns home and hires a neighboring peasant, Sancho Panza, to be his squire.
His misadventures start immediately.  He sees a plain with windmills on it and perceives them as giants.  He charges off and Sancho can't stop him.  He is dumped from his horse by a windmill arm.  He tells Sancho that this has been the work of an evil enchanter who has changed the giants to windmills (or vice versa).  This 'enchanter' becomes the method of his madness throughout.  This is Quixote's explanation for why things look different to him than to everyone else. 
Early on, he promises great riches to Sancho Panza.  The great knight will doubtlessly win a kingdom or two during his adventures and grant governorship of an island or something to his squire.  This is the way it is in his great 'histories' and no doubt it will happen again.  Sancho becomes fixed on the idea and is willing to go to great lengths for his future governorship.
Again and again they run into trouble.  Quixote sees some group of harmless tradesmen on the road and decides that it is an evil group with a captive princess.  He charges at them and causes some damage.  As soon as one of them catches his wits, he beats Don Quixote from his horse.  (Often Sancho Panza suffers a beating as well.)  They retreat and lick their wounds while blaming everything on evil enchanters.  This basic conflict is repeated again and again.
Meanwhile, all around them, actual romantic adventures are occurring.  Lovers are cheated from each other.  Money is taken and recovered.  Villainous men are brought to justice.  At one point, a romantic story is introduced as a lost manuscript, even though it has nothing to do with the actual story that is going on.  It's all quite entertaining.
Finally, some men from La Mancha find Don Quixote and, while entertaining his madness, bind him up in a cage and transport him home.  This is also explained as the work of enchanters and Quixote goes along with it, despite Sancho's efforts to clue him in on the trick.  The great knight is returned to his home and his worried niece and housekeeper.

I enjoyed this a great deal.  The storyline is a bit repetitive, but entertaining.  Cervantes goes to great lengths to find new ways of getting Don Quixote into trouble and then getting him out of it again.  Sancho Panza is wonderful, simply wonderful.  He is a trying hard to deal with an obvious madman but failing at each point.  He tries to point out the holes in Quixote's stories but gets no where.  And then greed takes over and he starts to find reasons to believe in the enchanter nonsense.
It's easy to see why the book was popular when it was written.  I found myself smiling often while reading it and even laughed out loud a few times.  I also had to share bits of it with my wife.  This is a very fun read.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Cymbeline - Shakespeare

Cymbeline is the name of an early English king.  He has a somewhat complicated history.  He had two sons by a previous wife, but they were taken from their nursery at an early age and disappeared.  He has a daughter by that previous wife, named Imogen.  He has since remarried but his new queen has a son from an earlier marriage named Cloten.  To make matters more complicated, Imogen has married herself to man named Posthumus Leonatus, whose father died heroically before he was bon.  This marriage is frowned upon by the king and Posthumus has been banished from England.  (Got all that?)
This is the situation as the play opens.  Very shortly thereafter these things happen:
  • Posthumus makes a wager with an Italian that Imogen cannot be seduced.
  • The Queen mixes a poison that is meant for Imogen.
  • Cloten decides that he must marry Imogen and he won't take 'no' for an answer.
  • Imogen insults Cloten by telling him that he is worth less than her husband's worst clothes.
  • We are introduced to the king's lost boys who have been raised in the wilderness by a disgraced soldier.
  • A Roman ambassador has come to collect tribute owed by England to Rome. 
All of these things mix together in the expected (and unexpected) ways.  It ends with happiness for some and tragedy for others.  I won't spoil it except to say that it feels like a very busy play.

There is something of a remix feel to 'Cymbeline'.  It opens with an early English king rejecting his good daughter, much like King Lear.  There is a bloodthirsty queen, much like in 'Macbeth'.  There are 'lost' children like in several of the romances.  Imogen wakes in a grave next to the dead body of her supposed lover, like Juliet does.  Yet in all of these similarities, the outcome is different, or at least the path is different.
All different but I don't know if any of them are improved. 

Cymbeline is the king involved, but he is really something of a bit part.  The main part of the story is that of Imogen and Posthumus and their difficulties.  I'm curious about the reason for the naming.  (And I don't know if Cymbeline has a hard or soft 'c' sound.)  All in all, this is the least attractive title role that I've come across in Shakespeare's works.

I can see how it could be an effective play, but I can also see how people would pass it by for other, better works.  I guess you can put this on the list of plays that I probably need to see in order to really judge it.  As read, it is a lesser work by Shakespeare.

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

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

King John - Shakespeare

King John is sole king of England but he faces a claim from a French prince, named Arthur.  In the face of this challenge, he goes to war.  The English and French forces face off outside of a city called Angiers.  Both sides demand that the city open their gates to them, and only them.  The conversation goes something like this (paraphrased):

Angiers: We're only going to open up for the king.
Eng & Fra: Yes, but which king?
Angiers: (pause) The rightful king.
Eng & Fra: Ok, but which one of us is the rightful king?
Angiers: (longer pause) Um, you figure it out and then we'll open our gates.

So they fight and scheme and fight until it is pointed out that they could join forces to punish Angiers for their indecision.  They agree but then quickly decide that maybe the could stop all of the fighting if the kings married their children together and hammered out a lasting peace.  They do so.
This absolutely horrifies the women behind the kings, Eleanor of Aquitane, King John's mother and Lady Constance on the French.  Both think that their side had given up too much and should have pressed harder.  (Both are very good roles, especially Lady Constance.)  They condemn the action but the marriage has taken place.
Before anything is resolved, an ambassador from the Pope, Pandolf, shows up and ex-communicates King John over a disputed archbishop.  John won't give in and Pandolf leans on the French to attack him if they want to stay in good with the church.  The war resumes and ruins the wedding glow.
Arthur is captured in battle and King John's party returns to England, leaving Eleanor to fight on in France.  The King asks one of his trusty men, Hubert, to kill Arthur and remove the threat.  Hubert agrees heartily but when it comes time to blind(!) and kill him, he cannot do so.  Word gets out that the king has killed innocent Arthur and King John faces a revolt of his nobles.  He repents of his actions and yells at Hubert for agreeing to kill Arthur.  Hubert tells him that he has not done so and the king is overjoyed.
Meanwhile, Arthur has tried to escape and fallen off of a wall and killed himself.  The nobles find his body and blame King John.  They go off to join a French expedition against the king.  King John decides to give sway to the Pope and asks Pandolf to bring about peace.  France decides to press their advantage and fight on.  The nobles go back to the English side and England wins.
As this has happened, King John has retired to a monastery and been poisoned by a monk.  The remaining cast gather around him and wish him godspeed to the afterlife.  The nobles then swear allegiance to Prince Henry, now Henry III.

King John is a big step down from Richard III.  The play, in style is more like Richard II or III in that it describes a long character arc of the king itself, rather than focusing on events of the time.  Even with that though, it falls short in quality of either one.  For one, the character of the king is much less remarkable.
From what we know of the play, it is fairly early Shakespeare.  There is dispute whether or not the story is reworked from someone else or whether a different play was copied from Shakespeare.  One of the most interesting things about reading so much of the man in one shot is finding out just how much we really know about when things were written.
There are some elements that I liked here, especially Lady Constance, but overall this isn't a great play.  It's not unreadable, but I can see why it isn't done in any kind of heavy rotation.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Timeline of Authors

It's been a while since I've done one of these, but I think this will be useful.  At least I've been wanting this as I figure out how to proceed.  This timeline will cover the authors that I'm looking at for the remainder of the year.

Hobbes 1588-1679
Milton 1608-1674
Pascal 1623-1662
Spinoza 1632-1677
Locke 1632-1704
Montesquieu 1689-1755
Rousseau 1712-1778
Mill 1806-1873

Cervantes 1547(?)-1616
Fielding 1707-1754
Sterne 1713-1768
Boswell 1740-1795
Goethe 1749-1832
Tolstoy 1828-1910

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Richard III - Shakespeare

Now is the winter of our wading through mounds of similarly named nobles made glorious by a play which focuses on one central figure.

Richard III is very much a part of the same story that is set up by the Henry VI trilogy (and improved, I think, by reading them together) but it is very different in form.  The earlier plays are more of an epic and sprawling affair.  This one is the story of one man and his ambition.  As the play opens he calmly figures out just who would have to die in order for him to become king.  He then starts the wheels moving towards those deaths.  We, the audience, are invited to come along with him.  I won't go through the plot bit by bit, but I want to point out some of the highlights.

Near the beginning of the play, Richard woos Lady Anne, the widow of Prince Edward whom he had a direct hand in killing.  He meets her over the coffin of Henry VI, who he also killed.  In an astonishing manner, he woos and wins her by telling her that all of this was done for her beauty and for the future of England.  After she leaves, he winks at the audience to let them know that all of this was done for the sake of his schemes.
The deaths begin to mount and soon the only ones between Richard and the crown are his two young nephews.  They are 'invited' to London so that he can protect them.  This is done by stashing them in the Tower of London.  Richard quickly has them murdered.  (The Wikipedia article on the Princes in the Tower makes for good reading.)  Even as this has happened, Richard moves to make them illegitimate and therefore unable to inherit the throne.
The women of the play, Queens Elizabeth and Margaret and Anne, the Duchess of York) gather to lament the dead they have lost.  "I had an Edward, till a Richard kill'd him..."  They list the dead and their killers.  The effect is startling and I would love to see it live.  I'm sure it would bring chills.
Near the end, when Richard III is finally crowned and is readying for battle, he is visited by the ghosts of all he killed.  One by one they come and condemn him and then go over to the other side of the battlefield to bless his opponent, the future Henry VII.  Richard does indeed lose the battle, in part because he is unhorsed.  He is killed and the War of the Roses finally comes to an end.

This play is amazing.  I can see why top actors have tried their hand at the Richard III role.  He is devious and charming.  He is ruthless and evil.  He is a villain in the truest sense of the word.  Richard III is quite possibly the best villain that Shakespeare ever wrote. 
Over in England, they have capitalized on the success of the earlier 'Hollow Crown' series that dealt with Richard II, the Henry IV plays and Henry V.  They have created a sequel of sorts, that moves the Henry VI plays and Richard III into a trilogy.  I'm very anxious to watch it when it comes to the US.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Henry VI Part 3 - Shakespeare

As with the previous part, there is far too much action to try and sum up the plot.  Also, by it's nature, it's very confusing.  Instead I'll simply highlight some of the touching scenes.

The play begins with King Henry in Richard's hands.  They come to an agreement where Henry will live out his life and when he dies, the throne will go over to Richard and his heirs.  Queen Margaret is furious at Henry for selling out their children.  She flees London and goes to the north, where she has support.
There is more battle, near the city of York.  Clifford finds Richard's young son Rutland.  He won't allow him to flee.  Clifford remembers his vow to kill all of the family and kills Rutland there.  Soon after, Richard is captured.  Queen Margaret and Clifford taunt Richard with Rutland's blood and then kill him.  Richard's head is cut off and put on display above the city with a paper crown.  The king is horrified by all of this.
Fortunes reverse and Richard's son Edward is crowned king.  Queen Margaret flees to France.  She tries to convince the King of France to allow his daughter to marry her son, Edward.  As she is making her argument, an embassy by Warwick arrives from the opposing side for her to marry Edward.  The king of France is unsure what to do.  While he is deciding, word comes that Edward has already married someone else.  Warwick is incensed and changes sides.  France decides to aid Queen Margaret.
Another battle and Queen Margaret loses.  The sons of Richard capture her and her son Edward.  They kill him in front of her.  As it's done, Richard's son Richard (the youngest surviving son) leaves for London and the tower.  There, he confronts King Henry and calmly kills him.
King Edward IV is now king with no other major claimant.

Before starting on the Henry VI plays, I read that not many people bother with them.  I can see why.  The plot isn't easy to follow.  The casts are enormous and hard to keep track of.  Most of the nobles use several names, varying between Christian (i.e. 'first') names to their noble names.  Almost all of the important men are named Henry, Richard or Ed.  This would have been an absolute mess to watch.
But I enjoyed it.  In many ways, the three plays together were like an epic mini-series.  Factions gained prominence and were cut down.  Major people are introduced.  They do important things and then find themselves on the wrong end and are killed.  There is a broad scope to the entire spectacle.  (It helped to read some secondary sources on the War of the Roses.)
And the future Richard III gains prominence throughout.  In the third part he has a tasty soliloquy where he talks about how he is surprisingly ok with having to do violence and evil.  The crown is not far from him and he is on the look out for a way to put it on his own head.  He sees this as his certain future.  It's chilling and yet we can't look away.
The Henry VI plays were some of the earliest that Shakespeare wrote and apparently they were extremely popular during the time.  I can see why.  His contemporaries would have been able to follow the action much more easily than we could have.  They would have enjoyed the huge swings of power and fortune.  I'm sure they also shuddered as the villainous Richard III climbed higher and higher too.
I liked it too.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Books Read In May

While May was a busy month of reading, most of it was done within the projects of this blog.  Chaucer and Rabelais took up some time and I finished at least two plays at least week.  Outside of my regular projects, I think I only read two books:

Snow Falling On Cedars by David Guterson - This is a courtroom drama set in a beautiful area, the Juan de Fuca straights between Washington State and Canada.  The crime itself is interesting, but the main force of the book has to do with prejudice towards Japanese Americans both with interment during World War II and afterwards.  Very eye opening.  Also, I find books about island life fascinating.

Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein - A reread for me.  One that I go over every few years and will no doubt push on my children as soon as they are old enough.  This is Heinlein's attempt to tackle questions of 'why do armies fight' and 'are there good reasons for a soldier to soldier'.  Despite the cartoonish title, this is a work with serious philosophical questions posed.  Highly recommended. 

Friday, May 27, 2016


As the month of May draws to a close, I have now read through 18 pieces from the Great Books 10 year reading plan.  This is the regular number of works for each year in the plan.  As you might remember, I took their reading list apart and decided to use it in a more ala carte manner.  I took out nearly half of the remaining selections for years 5 - 10, paring the whole thing down to 59 remaining pieces. 
At the time, I thought it would take me about three years to get through it all, but I now think it will be two years or less.  As I mentioned, I've covered nearly a third of the works in five months.  When I first decided to tackle the list, I charted each piece by page number so that I could balance the months out.  Because of that, I can tell you that I've read 1299 pages so far this year, which would be a regular amount from a full year. 
This isn't because I'm awesome. It's because my schedule has allowed me to put in time each day towards reading goals.  I don't know if that will continue, but I've lightly planned out the rest of the year in hopes that it will.  If that schedule changes, then so be it.  I'll adjust.
The plan is to work on two separate tracks.  One of those tracks will work on finishing the group that I think of as the Enlightenment philosophers.  Those works:
  • Hobbes - Leviathan (Part II)
  • Milton - Samson Agonistes
  • Pascal - The Provincial Letters
  • Montesquieu - The Spirit of Laws (Books I-V, VIII, XI-XII)
  • Rousseau - Discourse on Political Economy
  • Locke - Letter Concerning Toleration
  • Mill - Utilitarianism
There are also four pieces of Spinoza, basically Ethics (Parts 1-5), but I have a reason for holding those back.  If it turns out that these go faster than expected, I may cover Spinoza as well.
While working on these, I'm also going to work on some of the pieces of longer fiction.  The remaining ones:
  • Cervantes - Don Quixote (2, broken in two pieces in the 10 year reading plan, though I'll read as one)
  • Sterne - Tristam Shandy
  • Fielding - Tom Jones
  • Goethe - Faust (2)
  • Tolstoy - War and Peace (2)
  • Boswell - Life of Johnson (various parts, 2 pieces in the plan)
I very much doubt that I'll get through all of these this year.  I'm going to start with 'Don Quixote' and I've mentally tagged November and December for 'War and Peace'.  If I get through half of them and the seven Enlightenment pieces from above, then I'll be more than half way through the remaining works and in good shape to finish up next year. 

I'm also rounding out the work on Shakespeare.  I've currently read 28 of the 38 plays.  I aim to be done with the whole set by the end of July.  Maybe earlier.  I've done two a week for most of May.
I'm going to miss them when they're done, though I'll write about that in more depth when it happens. 
I've thought about trying to fit the 100 Best Plays project back in to fill that gap, but I'm not sure if I will or not.  There is some crossover between that project and the Great Books project so I've actively blogged more than a quarter of the full hundred.  Maybe I'll fill in more gaps later in the year.

It looks like a busy year of reading but I've greatly enjoyed what I've gotten out of the first five months of it.  I can only hope that the next seven are as good!