Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Friendship or Fear

 Shakespeare's history plays offer us case studies contrasting different kinds of leaders. Mostly these leaders are medieval monarchs, whose modes of governance and levels of power differ hugely from those of contemporary heads of state (or would-be heads of state). But we wouldn't still be staging, watching, and reading Shakespeare if we didn't see ourselves in his characters, and our culture in his culture, as in a distant mirror (to adapt the famous phrase of the medievalist historian Barbara Tuchman).

And so, as I prepare to teach Shakespeare's Richard III to a group of undergraduates for perhaps the thirtieth time, I newly notice aspects of the play that speak to, and seem to speak of, the politicians among us, vying for power in this third decade of our twenty-first century. What I'm noticing this time is the two very different speeches given by two rival leaders in the fifth act of Shakespeare's play.

The first speaker is Henry, Earl of Richmond, soon to be crowned Henry VII, the first Tudor king. The second is Richard III, the Yorkist usurper who is defending his throne. In Shakespeare's play, Richard is the villain and Henry is the hero, in two-dimensional characterizations that ignore much of actual history. Shakespeare

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Best Unfamous Shakespeare Lines, Subjectively Chosen

"Shakespeare gets me; I can say the things I'm trying to say with him. He says it in that funky way or whatever, but what he shows people is what I'm tryng to say. I can take some words from Shakespeare and I can be like, yeah, this is how I feel, I might not have been able to put it into words myself for a long time and he's like there, there's the words you need."
                     -- Roger, prison inmate, participant in Shakespeare program

 Whenever you can't say what you mean about life, you can always just quote Shakespeare. He's like the Grateful Dead (though somewhat better), who have a song for every occasion. Shakespeare not only has a line for every occasion, he invents new occasions with his lines. Or maybe it's better to say that he brings our occasions into focus. 

So, on this September day, rather than get into whom Shakespeare would have voted for in the upcoming election (Biden), or which tragic Shakespearean tyrant Trump is most like (none of them, because they're all smart and articulate), or what sort of car Shakespeare would have driven (a Subaru), I'm simply going to list some

Saturday, August 1, 2020

Shakespeare's Doctors

Who were the Doctors Fauci and Birx of Shakespeare's time? And how does Shakespeare represent physicians in his plays? These are two very different questions.

There was no public health administration as such in Elizabethan or Jacobean England. Civic authorities tended to function as health administrators during times of plague, placing obstacles in the way of large assemblies and closing many gathering places when death tolls were high, much as U.S. governors are doing during the coronavirus months (we hope months) today. Doctors -- called variously apothecaries, surgeons, and "chirurgeons" -- did a thriving business, but they did business on their own. Most were quacks, though many were sincere quacks, though that's very likely a contradiction in terms. The word "quack," used in relation to medical fraud, is almost as old as Shakespeare, though in its earliest use it was a verb. A 1628 text speaks of dishonest doctors "quacking for patients." But

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

"True ornaments to know a holy man": Holy-Book-Waving in Shakespeare and Washington

A stereotypical sign of moral hypocrisy is the waving of a Bible. The phrase "Bible thumper" refers not to a genuinely inspired Christian zealot, but to a Pharisee more intent on cramming Biblical dicta into others' heads than on repenting for his own sins (who will not remove the mote in his own eye, in that same Bible's words). While "Bible thumper" goes back only a century or so, these scripture-waving types are as old as the Pharisees Christ chastises in that very book. They've always abounded in life, and representations of them in literature precede Shakespeare. (Think of Chaucer's licentious fire-and-brimstone preacher, the Pardoner.) So when the puffed-up libertine Donald Trump appeared waving a Bible in front of a Washington D.C. church last month, using that book as a prop to help him condemn the folks in that city who were protesting police violence against black citizens, he was a familiar trope. (A Trump trope.) He was the real-life embodiment of a humorous literary and dramatic cliche. He didn't know that, of course, because he doesn't read books. But the fact was evident to others.

The joke was especially rich for Shakespeareans, who saw the resemblance of the ridiculous scene to the comic moment in Richard III when wicked Richard, Duke of Gloucester, stage-manages his own appearance in front of a crowd of London citizenry. He stands between two clergymen, holding a prayer book and claiming he is "earnest in the service of my God." He's suborned the mayor and his henchman Buckingham to urge him to leave his prayerful contemplation and ascend to the English throne -- a position to which he is not, in fact, entitled, but which he is determined to occupy. In Richard Loncraine's filmed adaptation of the play, Richard (Ian McKellen) and his sinister cronies wear Nazi-ish uniforms as they plot the scene.

Monday, June 1, 2020

Shakespeare and Angry Mobs

What did Shakespeare think of angry mobs? To answer is not so easy. For four hundred years, Shakespeare readers have mistakenly extricated this or that phrase, said by this or that character, from this or that play, and proclaimed that it expressed Shakespeare's opinion on the given subject. "The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers," says s follower of the rebel Jack Cade (a real historical character) in Henry VI, part 2. Cade agrees. This is said to mean Shakespeare hated lawyers. Really, what it means is that the rebel and mob-inciter Jack Cade hates lawyers. But Jack Cade also wants to kill anyone who can read and write. Does that sound like something that would interest Shakespeare?

This is not to say that we can't discern Shakespeare's attitude on some subjects. It is only to say that doing so is a complex, lengthy, and painstaking effort that requires, paradoxically, not trying to discern Shakespeare's attitude. Instead, we learn Shakespeare's mind as a secondary result of getting to know his plays. If you immerse yourself in Shakespeare's work the way you would surrender yourself to a conversation, not pursuing an agenda but simply hearing what is said, you eventually get to know, from a thousand repeated explicit or subtle suggestions, how Shakespeare viewed certain issues, or, at least, to which views he inclined. You may notice, for example, that every man in Shakespeare who is prone to soliloquy rather than to conversation falls prey to unfounded jealousy of his wife or lover, and this may lead you to suspect that Shakespeare thought isolation bred tormenting delusions. Or you may come to recognize a sympathy for woodlands in the very quantity and variety of sylvan plants that spring up in Shakespeare's dialogue, whether these plants are directly described as part of the imaginary landscape, or whether, as happens more often, they function metaphorically to describe some human experience. In The Winter's Tale, Perdita speaks of "pale primroses, / That die unmarried ere they can behold / Bright Phoebus in his strength -- a malady / Most incident to maids."

So, we may ask, in this day of angry crowds demonstrating and, sometimes, looting in cities across America, in the wake of the latest police murder of a black man --

Friday, May 1, 2020

Plague in Shakespeare's Time

In the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, when Shakespeare was writing his plays and living, for the most part, in London, plague was an occasional but expected social evil. At various times from the middle ages through the seventeenth century, the bubonic plague spread from country to country via flea-bearing vermin on ships, and so entered port cities, London being one, and spread from there. Those who could afford it, or had rich friends who owned country manors, fled the town. Those less fortunate "sheltered in place," or didn't, in London, and many caught the "pest." The proportion of fatalities was astronomically higher than any nation is experiencing from Covid-19. In the 1592-93 outbreak, ten percent of the London population died. By comparison, in New York City at the time of this writing, fewer than two-tenths of one percent of the population have died of Covid-19. Not as many people recovered from the plague as now get over Covid, though a lot did, especially as its strain apparently mutated and grew less virulent. People could hope.

There was a second outbreak of plague in London while Shakespeare was there, in 1603, and a milder one in 1605. During none of these plague years did civic authorities outlaw church services, and they rarely interfered with people's shopping, but they did outlaw morally sketchier gatherings in which people pressed

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Shakespeare, Jonson, and Social Distance

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 Shakespeareand enjoyed insulting him from his bully pulpit of the stage. All evidence suggests that Jonson and Shakespeare were friends, though they