Saturday, May 1, 2021

Horrid Speech Shakespeare Would Never Use

 It's May, and time for my latest list of horrible non-Shakespearean journalistic or advertising or other sorts of contemporary sayings, along with suggested Shakespearean substitutes. Here are ten.

1. Headlines like this: "Benedict Cumberbatch's Sweet Valentine's Day Wedding: Everything You Need To Know." Here's what I need to know about Benedict Cumberbatch's sweet Valentine's Day wedding: Nothing. NO THING. Benedict Cumberbatch is an actor. I like seeing him on the screen. I don't give a flying fig about his personal life. What would Shakespeare say about this headline? He'd have Ophelia sing, "Tomorrow is Saint Valentine's day," and then thank Bonafide Cummerbund for helping keep Hamlet alive on stage (at least until act five, scene two) four hundred years after Shakespeare himself departed for the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler may return.

2. "Bespoke" and "hand-crafted." These are disgusting terms that should be eliminated from the English vocabulary. There's no space to list the ways in which

Friday, April 2, 2021

Shakespeare's Spaniards

Often people make much of the fact that many of Shakespeare's comedies are set in Italy, a convention of early-modern English comedies which derives largely from Tudor playwrights' important models, the works of the first-century Roman playwrights Plautus and Terence. In plays like The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Romeo and Juliet, or The Taming of the Shrew, you won't find much evidence that Shakespeare knew many actual Italians, or, much less, had ever visited Italy, despite all his Hortensios and Petruccios and Benvolios. Usually his "Italian" characters seem like English folk (though this is not always the case: in England, Italians had a reputation for

Monday, March 1, 2021

Shakespeare, Jonson, Plague

 Last year at this time, I wouldn't have dreamt we'd be walking around with masks on our faces in March of 2021. I remember trying to buy some dust masks at the hardware store back then, thinking they might be useful over the next few weeks. (They were already sold out.) A month after that, when I wrote this post, I would have been equally surprised to hear that it would still be relevant, or even understandable, in 2021. But it is. So I'm posting it again: a look back to how things seemed, Shakespeare-wise, Ben Jonson-wise, and Covid-wise, a year ago.

I hope I'm not posting this a third time in 2022. 

April, 2020. This month, in our time of modern-day plague, I shall not write yet one more claim that Shakespeare wrote King Lear or Macbeth while quarantined for the "pest," as they called it. (He did not.) Instead, I am offering my parody of a poem by Shakespeare's greatest rival, his brilliant contemporary, the playwright and poet Ben Jonson (pictured left of Will), who inhabited the early modern theater world alongside Shakespeare and enjoyed insulting him from his bully pulpit of the stage. All evidence suggests that Jonson and Shakespeare were friends, though they

Monday, February 1, 2021

Shakespeare in Winter

It's gray and cold and snowy in Michigan, and whatever the Groundhog does tomorrow, it's likely to stay this way til at least the middle of March. The weather puts me in mind of Shakespeare's descriptions of winter.

Seasonal change is a fundamental metaphor in Shakespeare's poetry. He is fond of the coming of spring. Who isn't? "From you I have been absent in the spring," the poet laments in one sonnet. The Winter's Tale, despite its title, is popping with references to budding flowers and greenery, and its longest scene features a springtime sheep-shearing festival. Twelfth Night takes its title from the Eve of Epiphany, in the first week of January, but its characters, too, spend much time frolicking outside, presumably in mild climes and a gentler time of year. Where, then -- outside of a couple of titles -- is winter in Shakespeare?

We can find it here and there. Here's a verse from the song that concludes Love's

Friday, January 1, 2021

Ten Things Shakespeare Wouldn't Say if He Were Alive in 2021

 I've got ten new things people say that I want them to stop saying. The people I have in mind are advertisers, news commentators, politicians, and university administrators. They are not like you and me. They speak their own language, one I know Shakespeare would have disdained, and there are certain current terms on the hearing of which I know he is spinning in his never-to-be-violated grave. Therefore, Shakespeare and I mutually request that these folks find substitutes. Drawing on Shakespeare's own rich vocabulary, I will recommend some, following this list of Terms Which I Request Be Left Behind with the Rest of the Miserable Year 2020.

1. "Gift" instead of "give," as in, "Gift one, get one free." Yes, I know Shakespeare liked to turn nouns into verbs. Who can forget "Uncle me no uncles,"

Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Shakespeare and Christmas

Dickens and Christmas we know about, but what about Shakespeare and Christmas? How did he celebrate? How do his characters celebrate? Alas, we know little about Shakespeare's life, so we cannot fully answer the first question. We know Yuletide was a festive occasion in Elizabethan and Jacobean London (becoming less so as the seventeenth century wore on and those Biblically-minded Puritans began waging their war on Christmas). Through the 1590s and most of the first decade of the seventeenth century, when Shakespeare was active as an actor and playwright in London, Christmas would have been a busy time for him and his company, who were called upon to stage entertainments for Queen Elizabeth and, later, King James during the Christmas season. The apogee of festivity (of festiveness?) fell on Twelfth Night, the eve of January sixth, the Feast of the Epiphany, a holiday I've discussed in an earlier post. (Shakespeare's play Twelfth Night was most likely named for the holiday during which it was initially presented.) Unlike us, who begin celebrating Christmas immediately after Halloween and are done with it by 1 p.m. on December 25th, Christmas celebrations during Shakespeare's time actually began on Christmas Day, and continued for the eleven days thereafter. The season was celebrated with feasting, dancing, revelry, and all kinds of enjoyable pagan behaviors, including the staging of masques and plays filled with mythological references and characters. It was a frantic time indeed for theater folk, but a lucrative one. 

We can assume Shakespeare took part in the hard work, as well, we hope, as some of the revelry. But our knowledge of his holiday habits is largely speculative. We can speak with a bit more authority about Christmas as it appears in his plays. Unlike Dickens, Shakespeare never wrote a work centered on Christmas, but he did write one play set during the Christmas season. Some may be surprised to learn

Sunday, November 1, 2020

Banishing Trump-staff

The past four years have confronted Shakespeare scholars with endless obvious comparisons between our president and Shakespeare's most villainous tragic heroes. We've compared him to Macbeth, Claudius, and Richard III, along with the more morally ambiguous Richard II, King Lear, and Julius Caesar. We all agree that Trump shares almost every vice of these characters and none of their redeeming features, like eloquence, courage, or wit. He's a would-be hero, just as he's a would-be strong man. As Sacha Baron Cohen recently put it, Trump, like Cohen, is a professional phony. That being the case, it may be best to close (I hope) this horrid Trump chapter in American life by drawing attention to the resemblances, not between Trump and a character of tragic stature, but between Trump and the most bloated and shameless Shakespearean phony. That would be Falstaff. It goes without saying that Trump shares this character's vices, but not his talents: his ingenuity, his articulateness, and his teeming imagination. In "Henry IV, part 2," Falstaff says he is not only "witty in [him]self, but the cause that wit is in other men." For Trump, only the second half of that statement is true. However, the past year has shown his remarkable likeness to Falstaff in other, unfunny ways: his chilling indifference to the value of human life, his colossal vanity, his insistence on calling himself the winner of contests he's obviously lost, his contempt for honor, his obesity, his ill health, his steadily decreasing appeal, his pretense of youthfulness, and his need -- or the need with which he presents us -- to banish him from the stage, finally, for good. His scene is done. Shakespeare developed the initially highly entertaining figure of Falstaff over two plays, "Henry IV, part 1," and "Henry IV, part 2," but implanted within him a kind of built-in obsolescence. Falstaff needed to be fun enough to justify young Prince Hal's attraction to him and to keep the audience laughing through one play, but to fade in his attractions for both Hal and the audience in part two, so that his dismissal -- his ultimate banishment, when Hal ascended to the throne of England -- could be applauded. At the beginning, Falstaff's reckoning himself one of the kingdom's "youth" (he's sixty), and his habit of talking his way out of trouble by changing the subject, prompt laughter in both Hal and the playgoers (or readers, as the case may be). But by the end of his first play, Falstaff's charm is already waning. It's hard to maintain warm feelings for him after a long speech in which he brags that he is capitalizing on the misery of the kingdom's unfortunates, "younger sons to younger brothers" and "ostlers tradefallen," by impressing them for military service and marching them off to be sacrificed in the king's wars. "Food for [gun]powder," he tells the prince. "They'll fill a pit." Falstaff has enriched himself by allowing luckier, wealthier men to buy their way out of military service, fulfilling his commission by drafting those whose means allow them no choice but to serve. Almost all of them die in the Battle of Shrewsbury; those who remain are maimed. Falstaff doesn't care, as long as he can escape with his money and his life. It's hard for audiences, then, to feel sympathy for him when he shows up in the next play ill with gout, and making jokes which aren't as funny as they used to be, but still trying every trick he can think of to cash in (literally) on his connections to the prince. When the crowned Hal finally publicly repudiates him, calling him "old man" and telling him, "fall to thy prayers," Falstaff doesn't know it's really time for him to go. He tells his followers he will be sent for "at night." But it's different for us. Like Prince Hal, we know this clown's moment is over. And so it is for Trump. The comic value of his shamelessness, like that of Falstaff's, has worn thin. Falstaff will go to any absurd length to justify his behavior and his lies, like Trump, who, when challenged regarding his statement that Covid would simply disappear, said, "I'll be right eventually." (So is a stopped clock. And the earth will disappear eventually.) Like Falstaff, who doesn't care how many bodies fill a pit as long as he gets his commission, Trump and his son declare 230,000 American deaths "almost nothing." They're nothing to the Trumps. With less success than Falstaff first enjoys, Trump plays the comedian -- for incredibly, as he leers and grimaces at crowds at his rallies and says whatever comes into his head, he appears to think he is funny. The cascade of crude insults which delight his followers are a far cry from Falstaff's clever pin-pointing of his opponents' deficiencies ("elfskin" and "dried neat's tongue," meaning the prince, are terms which show some imagination; the same cannot be said for "Little Marco," "Sleepy Joe," etc.). But the dwindling, tired taunts with which Falstaff mocks his unfortunate draftees' names in "Henry IV, part 2," begin to put him in Trump's low-wit category. ("Moldy ... 'tis time you were used," he tells one such poor soul.) Like Falstaff, Trump claimed, at the time he got Covid, to have survived because he was "very young," and for months Trump has been mocking Joseph Biden for his age-related gaffes without seeming to understand that he is almost Biden's age himself, and has shown at least as many eyebrow-raising "senior moments" as his political foe in the last four years -- and even less physical stamina. Like Falstaff the fat, Trump lumbers around like a gouty water buffalo, not even able to stand upright behind a podium without leaning on it, spray-tanning himself so as not to show his natural ghastly pallor, dyeing and combing-over his sparse grey hair, and surrounding himself with women more than twenty years younger than himself, with whose energy he can clearly not keep up. Towards the end of his stage-time, Falstaff laments, at last, "I am old." Was Trump experiencing such a Falstaff moment when, in his bizarre TV pitch to seniors some weeks ago, he actually admitted that he was one? Does he know he's going to die? I doubt it. Very likely he was only desperately trolling for votes. But to me, it seems his act is finished. "Fall to thy prayers," Falstaff is told by the newly crowned king. In other words, "Repent, but do it elsewhere." I hope that this month, we invite our orange fool to do the same. And, by the way, Falstaff's next stop, after that dismissal, is prison, for his thievery. Just a thought.