Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Had the BEOWULF Poet Written KING LEAR's Storm Scene ....

I have taught many brilliant students, but one who is forever enshrined in my memory is a young man named Ian Hollenbaugh, who invented a language. He didn't do this in or for my class, but for his honors thesis. It was a whole language, with its own vocabulary and complex but logical grammatical rules, and, like Tolkien with Elvish, Ian made it up for fun.

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

Monday, April 1, 2019

An Easter Meditation on UnShakespearean Language

Every April Fool's Day I used to post a joke article about Shakespeare that I thought was funny, even if nobody else did. The first one, in 2013, was a claim that a missing scene from Romeo and Juliet had been found. Then there was the one about Macbeth's remains having been located in a supermarket freezer in Aberdeen. I'm not going to write a joke post this year, because too many people always think they're real, and also because nothing seems incredible enough to be amusing since Donald Trump got elected president. That was when irony died. I considered, "Donald Trump Claims MAGA Speeches More Popular than Shakespeare's Hamlet," but the only incredible thing about that headline is its implication that Trump has heard of Shakespeare. Then I thought, maybe, "Banquo's Ghost Authored The Art of the Deal," except I think that is actually true.

So, in lieu of a joke post in the month of Shakespeare's 455th birthday, I'm going to make yet another list of modern terms and phrases which I don't like, and which I'm convinced Shakespeare would make fun of. There are so many! But, as in the past, I've limited my list to ten.

1. A piece of whatever. People who are speaking publicly in front of other people about some allegedly important subject, whether they are on the radio or the TV

Friday, March 1, 2019

Borges on Shakespeare

I spent three times as much money acquiring permissions to create this book as I got paid to do it. First there was Penguin U.S.A., which owned the rights to the mystical Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges' stories in English. Then there were Penguin, Canada, and Penguin, U.K., who owned the rights to these stories' republication in those realms. And then there was the Borges Estate itself, which owned the rights to everything else: Borges' previously untranslated essays, the records of Borges' lectures, Borges' untranslated essays and poems. Finally, there was the Folger Shakespeare Library, which appeared (they weren't sure) to own rights to an untranscribed tape of one of Borges' late lectures. But everyone finally graciously agreed to sign off -- the Folger did so for free, and a nice man at Penguin U.S.A. who liked the project gave me a permissions deal -- and now there exists this book: Borges on Shakespeare. It presents in one volume, in English, pretty much everything the great Latin American author (of famous, paradoxical short stories like "The Library of Babel," "The Circular Ruins," and "The Zahir") had to say about Shakespeare in Spanish. And a few things which he said in English, because I did listen to that untranscribed, very rough tape about twenty-five times until I was sure I had understood and transcribed 95% of what it said.

That tape is the only record of a talk Borges gave in Washington, D.C., on the occasion of Shakespeare's 412th birthday, in 1976. Borges himself was 77, and mostly blind. He was helped to the microphone, but, unfortunately, not helped close enough to the microphone. According to one eyewitness, the audience was too

Friday, February 1, 2019

More Things People Should Stop Saying Because Shakespeare Wouldn't Like Them

It's once more time for me to complain about words and phrases that I want people to stop using. Instead, people should read Shakespeare and find superior Elizabethan terms, and reintroduce them into our twenty-first century lexicon. Are you ready?

1. "Special ask": I heard this one over the radio during NPR's last pledge fund drive, as I was sitting in my car not pledging money because I assumed someone else would do it in my place. What confirmed me in the wisdom of my decision was the NPR fundraiser's suddenly making "a special ask to everyday listeners." If only she had made a special request, I would have stepped up to the plate. But I could not in conscience respond to a "special ask." In place of this vile term, I recommend what Orlando says in As You Like It

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Shakespeare, "Black Mirror," and Free Will

I recently saw an episode of the British series Black Mirror in which a slightly-on-the-edge 1980s game-designer finds himself controlled by the series' twenty-first-century audience. An interactive function enabled me to select the musical cassette tape the character "chose" to play (the Thompson Twins!), an answer he gave in a job interview, and various other of his minor and major "decisions." At one point, using my remote, I was able to inform him via his clunky 80s computer screen that I was watching him on Netflix, a media-streaming Internet-based entertainment platform. Of course, he found my message incomprehensible, and it increased his frustration and despair. (Sorry, character.)

The idea that all our choices are predetermined, and thus not really choices at all, has acquired currency from recent psychological experiments demonstrating that the conscious experience of the choice to move one of one's body parts follows the neurological reaction that initiates the motion (https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/neuraptitude/201608/illusion-choice-the-myth-free-will). In other words, scientists found that before their subjects were aware of having decided to move, something in the subjects' brains had begun preparing for the movement. This is creepy, suggesting that we are robots controlled by somebody or even by nobody (although the experiment doesn't actually prove we are robots. More on this below). Video games have given us, and Netflix, a lively and novel metaphor to express the vision of a reality in which, feeling free, we are actually mysteriously monitored PAC-men and Ms. PAC-men, with the PAC standing (as that Black Mirror episode suggests) for "Program-and-Control." This techy way of thinking is newish.

Saturday, December 1, 2018

For Shakespeare, Being Is Behaving

I'm getting tired of the truistic (my invented word) argument that Trump's golem-like behavior (sorry, that was an insult to golems) "taps into" some pre-existing anger and racism in the American psyche. "It has to be there first before it can be exploited," I hear, over and over, in various formulations. What does that mean? What has to be there first? The human capacity for evil? With this I agree, but it's no great discovery, or shouldn't be.* Evil isn't regional. The idea that there is some special pool of racism in the collective American heart, or in any heart, is dumb. There is naturally a human capacity to hate and fear other people who seem "different from us," and who seem likely to try to take something away from "us" (whoever "we" are). It's always been easy for some demagogue to get power by

Thursday, November 1, 2018

"Expose Thyself To Feel What Wretches Feel": Mark Twain's Shakespearean Fiction

Last month I plucked from our shelves a Mark Twain novel I had somehow never read: The Prince and the Pauper. Perhaps because its pair of protagonists were adolescent youths, I'd thought it, like Tom Sawyer, was a book for boys. I found out it wasn't, any more than Huckleberry Finn or A Connecticut Yankee was designed for children. That is, unless Twain intended kids to read his graphic description of women being burned at the stake for heresy, which I doubt.

The Prince and the Pauper is a work of social criticism set in mid-sixteenth-century England. Superficially, the plot is that of a fairytale. A prince (in this case young Edward, son of Henry VIII) and a London pauper, of inexplicably identical appearance, meet by chance, spend a morning together, and at one point exchange clothes, after which circumstances drive them apart. Since no one will then believe their claims that they are not who they're dressed as, the pauper spends some months living as a prince -- and, soon, a king -- while the prince endures the hardships of poverty. Eventually the true young king's public revelation of a secret only he would know, and the pauper's weariness of royal life, ensure that order is restored. In relying on comic accidents and feigned and mistaken identities, Twain was imitating the tricks of Shakespearean comedy. But the book isn't comic. Twain