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.

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 --