Friday, November 1, 2019
For those who don't know the story: November 5, 1605, was the date on which a group of English Catholic zealots planned to blow up the House of Lords, killing the Protestant King James and all of his Protestant ministers of state; and to begin the restoration of England to a Catholic monarchy. Various Catholic candidates were considered for the soon-to-be-empty throne. Only things never got to that point, because someone leaked, and the barrels of gunpowder were discovered in the parliamentary cellarage right on the eve of the planned massacre (scheduled to occur on Parliament's opening day, for maximal bloodshed). Guy Fawkes was not the head of the conspiracy. He was only the plotter unlucky enough to be found guarding the gunpowder. Presumably he'd been given the task of lighting the fuse. Instead, after a bout of Tower torture, he accepted the job of pinpointing the other conspirators, and for months thereafter, it was more dangerous than ever to be a Catholic in England.
What does this have to do with Macbeth? Well, it is widely agreed among scholars that this play, performed in 1606 and focused on Scottish king-killing (the new king of England, James I, was Scottish), was written in part to capitalize on the public's interest in recent events. More than that, the play's famous Witches, who utter the deceptive prophecies that lead king-killer Macbeth to his doom, are thought to have been a fanciful allusion to the Catholic priests who were in on the plot. In Shakespeare's time Catholic priests were banned from England's shores on pain of death, but priests sneaked in anyway, proselytizing, serving the needs of the faithful, and, in some cases, looking the other way when Catholic plotters came to them seeking absolution for planned acts of terrorism. Well-meant terrorism; that is. Terrorism in the long-term interests of England's collective soul.
When the Gunpowder Plotters so spectacularly failed, the climate became ripe for a play which exploited English fears of Catholic violence and reminded Londoners what a very bad thing it was to kill a king. We can imagine that King James, who was now Shakespeare's company's official patron, also liked to have this last message spread about. Was Shakespeare himself Catholic, as some (Catholic) Shakespeareans are so fond of arguing? Stranger things have turned out to be true, although Macbeth's anti-Catholicism is part of the mountain of evidence to the contrary that, to prove their contention, would need to be explained away. To me it seems that Shakespeare's plays, Macbeth included, tell us nothing about where he stood on the Catholic question. Macbeth does, however, confirm that he knew what an audience might like to see in 1606.
Remember, remember, the Fifth of November, the Gunpowder Treason and Plot! There's really no reason that gunpowder treason should ever be forgot. In England, on what they also call "Bonfire Night," it is not forgot(ten). Nor is it in my classroom. I already have my Guy Fawkes mask ready.
Tuesday, October 1, 2019
1. "Now does he feel his title / Hang loose about him, like a giant's robe / Upon a dwarfish thief" (Macbeth 5.2). I quote this line with apology to dwarfs. And
Sunday, September 1, 2019
This is interesting, because Shakespeare, famously, was the son of a glovemaker who had also worked as a tanner (a skinner of cattle for their leather hides). It's hard to believe that Shakespeare himself wouldn't have gotten his hands greasy at some phase of his upbringing. You'd think young William, bursting out of the lower (though not at all the lowest) echelons of society by means of his reading and his wit, would have written in defense of the intellect of his earlier peers (peers in the modern sense of the word). After all, his greatest rival, Ben Jonson, who had once worked as a bricklayer, and who, like
Thursday, August 1, 2019
But here's what's really strange (or raro). It's when you read Shakespeare and you gradually realize that the English words in front of you don't mean what you think they mean. Many English words of four centuries ago are false friends, too.
In fact, this factor is overwhelmingly the biggest barrier to understanding Shakespeare's English in the twenty-first century. It's not that his characters often say "thee" and "thou" and "thine." It's not that they use archaic terms like "hither"
Monday, July 1, 2019
What this shows is that Queen Elizabeth quite rightly saw her reflection in the male monarchs Shakespeare presented in his late-sixteenth-century history plays. Perhaps she also saw her reflection in Titania, the Fairy Queen of the 1595 A Midsummer Night's Dream (who wants power so she can protect a child). But there is little or no record of Queen Liz's reactions to the non-regnant political women of
Saturday, June 1, 2019
This spring, in a graduate seminar, I taught a series of the historical tragedies of Shakespeare. I did my best to avoid making comparisons between Donald Trump and the protagonists of Richard the Third, Macbeth, and King Lear, partly because I thought some of my medievalist students might have voted for our national golem. (I hope I'm wrong.) Mainly I avoided the subject because I find such comparisons an insult to Richard the Third, Macbeth, and King Lear.
But when we came to Richard the Second, the parallels were too obvious for any of us to miss.
Richard II, pictured above on the right, is the less famous King Richard. He's the one whose bones weren't discovered in a Leicester parking lot in 2015. He died
Wednesday, May 1, 2019
I met Ian a couple of years before he performed this feat. For the first few weeks that he sat quietly in my Early British Literature survey class, I didn't know he was a genius. Even after he turned in his first essay, on Anglo-Saxon poetry, I didn't know. Instead, I thought he was a plagiarist. He had to be. This was an undergraduate survey course, and what I was reading was work of publishable quality that would have surprised me coming from a graduate student. Clearly it derived from someone else's pen -- or computer.
I spoke to Ian after our next class. I didn't tell him my suspicions, though he