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

Sunday, March 1, 2020

Shakespeare and Socialism

Shakespeare wasn't a socialist. He was a businessman. He wrote for money, and invested, and got rich. There is no biographical evidence that he was interested in sharing his wealth, or doing anything but acquiring more of it. He was like everybody else.

Indeed, English Renaissance writers tended only to fantasize about what we would call socialism. In his 1513 Utopia, Thomas More envisions a society in which all property is equally shared, but in real life, he lived in a manor, and expended no effort, in his influential role as Lord Chancellor, to urge laws that might redistribute royal wealth, or the wealth of privileged men like himself. In The Tempest, written nearly a century later, Shakespeare's kindly old nobleman Gonzalo imagines a "commonwealth" where there will be neither riches nor poverty, no commerce or forced labor, and no "sovereignty," but places himself as "king on't," as though "the latter end of his commonwealth forgets the beginning." Renaissance literature is full of ideas about equalizing wealth and eliminating poverty, but the ideas are always

Saturday, February 1, 2020

Shakespeare in India, India in Shakespeare

A post-colonially-minded colleague of mine once asked to visit my Shakespeare class, and I said, sure! He told my students that the reason Shakespeare was a requirement for their degree was that in the prior century in India, the British Raj had determined that requiring the study of Shakespeare in schools was an effective instrument of cultural indoctrination and control. Cricket was the English national game, and Shakespeare was the English national poet.

All this was true. But it wasn't the whole truth. India was the first geographical locale to require Shakespeare for formal study in English, since Shakespeare was seen as a conduit to the appreciation of what was most admirably English. However, as most people who have read any Shakespeare know, Englishness and Raj aside, Shakespeare is an excellent writer with a lot of fascinating ideas, so requiring him to be studied in any English class, east or west, is not such a bad idea for a whole slew of reasons. In a Shakespeare class, there are more fruitful ways of discussing his poems and plays than by showcasing their dubious history as tools of cultural indoctrination. 

India didn't throw out cricket when they threw out the British, and they didn't throw out Shakespeare. He was too popular. As in other countries, Shakespeare has been used and enjoyed in India in all kinds of interesting ways, suspicious and otherwise. Knowledge of Shakespeare in English served as "cultural capital" for the "upper-class, elite Indians" of nineteenth-century Calcutta, to quote scholar Jyotsna Singh. But Shakespeare has also been translated into numerous Indian languages;

Monday, January 6, 2020

Happy Twelfth Night!

I usually post on the first of the month, but this month I held off for the Feast of the Epiphany. I had no idea what  "epiphany" meant growing up, and learned it as a literary term having to do with James Joyce before I ever knew what a liturgical calendar was (we were "low" Protestants) and before I lived in New Orleans and found out about Kings' Day (on January 6th, the celebration of the arrival of the three kings to visit the baby Jesus). This revelation was the Epiphany. In later years I discovered from the Oxford English Dictionary that my own last name, "Tiffany," originated in slang for "Epiphany," which in England was sometimes called "the Tiffany" (God knows why). And before that, I had learned what was meant by Twelfth Night.

In Shakespeare's England, Twelfth Night was the last night of the Christmas holiday, and (despite Puritan reformers' dismay) was still celebrated in many of the lordlier households and by many of the rowdier London youth in a Mardi Gras like atmosphere of mayhem and misrule. Twelfth Night is the fifth of January, or the eve of the Epiphany. In Shakespeare terms, Twelfth Night is of course the title of one of his most famous plays, although, true to Shakespeare's occasional habit of

Sunday, December 1, 2019

My Shakespearean Grandmother

My parents were pack rats, who kept in our attic not only decades-old Christmas cards and records of paid bills from previous residences, but all the relics of their own pack-rat parents after those died. All this stuff was left for me and my siblings to sort through when my dad passed away ten years ago. We're still sifting. Among the sometimes amazing detritus, I uncovered an ancient theatrical makeup kit from Harlowe & Luther Druggists, 46th and Broadway. It looked a century old, and so it was. When I lifted its lid I found trays bearing boxes of "Finest Theatrical Face Powder," made by Oscar F. Bernner of New York; " "Rexall Theatrical Cold Cream (Prepared Especially for the Profession and General Toilet Purposes by United Drug Co., Boston & St. Louis)," some bright lipsticks and "Rouge fin de theatre" from Paris, and numerous brushes and puffs long-stained with these same paints and powders.

I knew instantly whose treasure this had been. My grandmother Teresa Tiffany, nee Crowley, born on July 28th, 1900 (my own birthday some six decades later), had for the entire time I knew her on this earth bragged about her experiences acting on the New York stage, while my mother discreetly rolled her eyes. "I was in the theatah!," Nana would proclaim, her arm raised high like SNL's Master Thespian,

Friday, November 1, 2019

The Fifth of November

The Fifth of November will soon once more be upon us, just in time for me to give my students a wickedly challenging short-essay test on Macbeth, chock-full of equivocal and deceptive language, just like the play. I always try to time our Macbeth discussions for this time of year, an appropriately scary season, what with Halloween being followed by the Day of the Dead and then the English holiday, Guy Fawkes Day. And, of course, the Fifth of November -- Guy Fawkes Day -- is particularly important to Shakespeare's play.

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.