Friday, December 1, 2017

Tolkien's Beef with Shakespeare

J. R. R. Tolkien didn't really dislike Shakespeare. I don't think he could have. As an Englishman educated in the first decades of the twentieth century, Tolkien ingested Shakespeare along with his ABCs, and could no more have uprooted "Shakespeare" from his thought than he could have discarded the alphabet. All English writers of his generation, as of many earlier and most later ones, thought and wrote with Shakespeare's language as a significant influence. For Tolkien, disliking Shakespeare would have been like disliking English -- not the English, which some English writers have found easy to do, but English -- and we know Tolkien loved English. He was, for God's sake, a philologist.

But Tolkien had a beef with Shakespeare. Two, to be exact.

First, he was annoyed -- indeed, angry -- with what he saw as the damage done by Shakespeare to the English idea of Elves. Elves, Tolkien said, was "a word in

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

"Remember, remember, the Fifth of November ...."


We are approaching the four hundred and twelfth anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot, the attempt of English Catholic zealots to blow up the House of Lords (with King James I and his family inside it) on November 5th, 1605. The English still celebrate the foiling of this plot, with fireworks and bonfires which commemorate the capture and execution of the conspirators and the preservation of Protestant England from the Catholic menace. Of course, to most English people the celebration has lost its fanatical religious overtones and is merely an excuse for a good time. But Guy Fawkes -- one of the chief conspirators, and the first caught -- is still burned in effigy, and folks remember the centuries-old chant, "Remember, remember, the Fifth of November, the gunpowder treason and plot . . . . There's really no reason that gunpowder treason should ever be forgot."

The BBC is launching a new series about the Gunpowder Plot which will reach American TVs in due time. Despite being produced in the home country, and however good the acting, the show is likely to be lamentably historically inaccurate, as are most of these dramas (e.g., the preposterously punked-out Elizabethan theater world as represented in the recent series Will). One of the major female characters, a reverent Catholic spinster, will be played by Liv Tyler. This is not a good sign.

All the more reason -- since you will watch it -- to prepare yourself, before viewing, with a fictional account of the plot that is grounded in research and historically likely -- and, for Shakespeare lovers, one that theorizes his plays' influence on the Plot in a way that is not merely wish-fulfilling (Shakespeare as fellow conspirator), but undoubtedly true. Yes, of course I'm talking about my own 2016 book, Gunpowder Percy, whose prime reading date has once more come round! But don't take my word on the book. Here are what some authors and reviewers have said:

". . . a thrilling story, vividly and skillfully told." -- James Shapiro, author of
                         The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606

"A consistently compelling read from beginning to end . . . . showcases author Grace Tiffany as an extraordinarily gifted storyteller of the first order."  --James Cox, Midwest Book Review

"Rich and vivid detail . . . . Provides readers with complex thoughts on the role of religious terrorism throughout history."   – Historical Novel Society
 
"To review a rich book as this so briefly is to risk losing the verdict in the discussion, so let me start by simply urging everyone to buy a copy and read it. . . . Gunpowder Percy is an excellent, beautiful book, with two particular strengths: mastery of the language of the time, and, aided by this, an admirable ability to enter into and convey the mental world of the characters."
                                                            -- Julia Griffin, The Shakespeare Newsletter

Now, you be the Star Chamber judge. Click here to order Gunpowder Percy. ttps://www.amazon.com/Gunpowder-Percy-Grace-Tiffany/dp/0866988157/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1453836790&sr=8-1&keywords=gunpowder+percy



There's really no reason that gunpowder treason should ever be forgot!

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Henry the Fifth and Cap'n Crunch: A St. Crispian's Day Meditation

October 25th is St. Crispin's Day, a holiday which the English remember chiefly because it's the anniversary of King Henry V's victory over the French at Agincourt in 1415. On this day of historical military significance, I'm noticing the correspondence between some challenging questions recently put to the U.S. military commander-in-chief (pictured left) and the ones faced by King Henry on the eve of his most famous battle. At least, they were faced by him in Shakespeare's play about the event, aptly titled Henry V.

You don't have to be a news junkie like me to know that Trump recently embarrassed himself in what he surely meant to be a consoling phone call to the widow of one of the four Green Beret soldiers recently slain in Niger. To put the best face (for Trump) on what happened: having been challenged by reporters on why he had not yet publicly acknowledged these soldiers' sacrifices or contacted their families to express sympathy, Trump claimed that he had written letters which hadn't yet been

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Shakespeare and Behaviorism

I frequently teach Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew, a play which remains amazingly popular despite its apparently outdated preachment that a woman is happiest when subservient to her husband. The play's continuing popularity is probably due to three main factors:

1. Shakespeare wrote it and it's really funny.
2. The Biblical injunction "Wives, submit to your husbands" is not an archaism for a significant minority. (This is news to most academics.)
3. The play presents an intriguing study of how behavior can be altered through a program of targeted rewards and consequences.

The third reason is most interesting to me because it's the most useful. That is, if we put to the side the issue of the ethics of "taming" a woman, the play can afford us some insight into ways to effect change in another person's behavior without drugging that person. Behavioral psychology, whether focused on spouses, children,

Friday, September 1, 2017

Losing the Soliloquy

I recently read a mediocre thriller by Dave Eggers called The Circle. It's not a good book, but the premise is timely and intriguing. A young woman gets a job at a Facebook-like California social media corporation whose ultimate aim is 100% "transparency," not of the company, but of its billions of customers. Users are urged to "go clear," which means to commit their every activity to film and on-line posting. The rationale is that mutual universal visibility will promote an honest society. "Privacy is secrecy," and secrecy means shame, and why do anything shameful? Allowing the world full viewing privileges to your life will prompt you to behave well. When we all behave well, we have utopia.

Sadly, Eggers fails to develop this premise into a plot with the slightest degree of nuance, complexity, or believability, partly by refusing to let any character raise the argument on behalf of privacy that will occur to most readers. No one in the book objects that a loss of privacy is also a loss of intimacy, since while privacy hides shame, it also allows specialness. (Even the young woman's ex-boyfriend, who is adamantly opposed to the intrusive "Circle," does not hit on this objection.) It also makes no sense that none of the Circle's thousands of young-genius employees questions the

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Tweetable Shakespeare for Current Occasions


To counter the barrage of absurd Tweets coming from various players on the U.S. scene, here are some eloquent and appropriate ones for current occasions. As usual, they come from the man who said everything best.

"This is some fellow who, having been praised for bluntness, doth affect a saucy roughness."
 "I have seen better faces in my time than stands on any shoulder that I see before me at this instant."

Saturday, July 1, 2017

A Rant about Wrongly Used Words, and What Shakespeare Says

About twenty years ago I wrote a book about Shakespeare and his biggest theatrical rival, a (mostly) comic playwright named Ben Jonson, seven years younger than William S., who was astoundingly popular in the London theater of the late 1590s and the first two decades of the seventeenth century. Jonson and Shakespeare knew each other well. Shakespeare's company staged some of Jonson's plays, and Shakespeare acted in at least one of them. They appear to have been friends, but had different temperaments. Jonson's humor was way more satirical and biting than Shakespeare's -- though Shakespeare has his moments -- and a comparison not only of the men's plays but of their lives suggests Jonson was a lot less tolerant of popular innovations in language. He mercilessly ridiculed fads, especially speech fads. Language affectation infuriated him, while Shakespeare poked more gentle fun at verbal follies, or deepened even his ridiculously word-mad characters by giving them a few lines of dialogue calculated to create pathos and generate audience sympathy. I wasn't even halfway through the writing of my book when I recognized that I was way more like Jonson than I was like Shakespeare. I really don't like it