Thursday, December 1, 2016

Learning Political Dialogue from Theater


Can it be fewer than four weeks since the Election? Has the transformation of our national reality occurred so quickly, and are we already used to it? The answer to this question, as to so many questions (especially when Shakespeare is bound to make an appearance), is, yes and no. Over the past few weeks the expressions of shock and horror on my Facebook page (yours may be different) have abated in number, but not in intensity. I'm trying to stay off Facebook, and am reluctant to add to the stew of editorial responses to what happened on November 8th. However, I am committed to a blog post every month, and now, in the wake of so many ruinous Thanksgiving conversations and fracturings of families and friendships, I am moved to consider what Shakespeare might have had to say about our present political situation.

Shakespeare’s political plays are full of power conflict. But the arguments mainly concern which individual person should be in charge of the country. Democracy? No.

Monday, October 31, 2016

On Taking Countries Back

This year the U.S. presidential election day falls in the same week of England's national holiday Guy Fawkes Day, also known as Bonfire Night (November 5th). In fact, it always falls then, and 2016 isn't the first time in our 240-year history that an election has called forth the kind of rebellious energies that inspired the Gunpowder Plotters. Those were the would-be terrorists whose capture the English holiday commemorates: a cabal of frustrated Catholics who thought the shortest way to restore their country to spiritual health was to blow up half the government. A major difference between them and Donald Trump is, they knew the change they were working for was illegal. That's why they worked in secret, and why they knew the game was up when they got busted. What's bizarre -- well, one thing that's bizarre --

Saturday, October 1, 2016

The Master

By my title, "The Master," I don't mean Shakespeare. Every once in a while I write some comments about historical fiction, the good, the bad, and the ugly, and since Hilary Mantel (one of the good ones) is taking so long to give us her last book in the Thomas Cromwell series -- I look for it constantly -- the prize today is going to Patrick O'Brian.

Yes, Patrick O'Brian of the Aubrey-Maturin series, the seemingly (and seamlessly) endless, continuous novel, published through the 1980s and 90s and focusing on the years between 1800 and 1815, when the British Navy was fighting Napoleon. The first book, Master and Commander, was made into a movie starring Russell Crowe. It was a pretty good movie, but no film could prepare a reader for the stunning excellence, the beauty, humor, and literary perfection, of these twenty novels. I have read all of them and I read them in one day. Or it seemed like a day.

How is it that O'Brian can write like Jane Austen -- and I mean with such absolute familiarity with her idiom, with the social practices, customs, and particularly the modes of speech of the early nineteenth century -- when, unlike her, he didn't live back then? Is he a time traveler? The depth of his understanding of not only British maritime life during that time of burgeoning empire, but of general middle- and upper-class Regency culture, is astonishing. It's as bottomless as the sea. O'Brian knows, for example, that the Royal Society was maintained by amateur scientists --

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Shakespeare Got Sick of It All

I've written previously on this site about Shakespeare and nostalgia -- that is, about how some of Shakespeare's characters brilliantly describe our sometimes-longing for a lost golden time of youth, or of the world's youth, even while other characters, or other things in the play, slyly suggest that there really was no golden time, and that our self-selective memories do the gilding. Well -- this post is sort of like those prior posts. I'm thinking about the parts of Shakespeare's plays and poems that show a fine awareness of the experiences of aging -- the changes age brings in outlook, in memory, in mood -- and, especially, how aging can bring on a distaste for, even disgust with, the world as it is.

We read, see, and perform Shakespeare because Shakespeare says it best. A lot of writers say it well, but nobody says it like Shakespeare. He expresses horrid feelings beautifully, which was one reason those very astute Puritan reformers

Monday, August 1, 2016

Cruz and Trump: The Real Mark Antony

Late in July The New York Times's Michael Paulson wrote an article comparing Ted Cruz's speech at the 2016 Republican National Convention to that of Mark Antony in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. By repeatedly alternating the statement that Brutus and the other assassins are "honorable men"  with moving citations of their victim Caesar's virtues, Antony uses words that come to mean the opposite of what they literally say. Brutus, he implies, is in fact a dishonorable murderer, undeserving of praise or followers. Likewise, in appealing to Americans to vote their consciences rather than telling them to vote for Trump, Cruz was sending Americans a coded message: vote your consciences instead of voting for Trump. Paulson's Antony-Cruz analogy was echoed (perhaps even initiated) by the Washington Shakespeare Theater's artistic director Michael Khan and the New York Public Theater's director Oskar Eutis, both of whom he  interviewed for his article. Both directors agreed that Cruz's speech, which the crowd thought was going to end one way (in a Trump endorsement) but in fact ended in another (without one), ran parallel to Mark Antony's, in which the speaker seems aligned with the crowd in his praise for Brutus until his words turn the mob's mood in another direction, from applause to cries of outrage.

In fact, Paulson and the directors have it half right. The Roman mob was there, but it wasn't created or manipulated by Cruz. If we are drawing Julius Caesar comparisons, and listening and reading with care, it shouldn't take us long to see that Cruz was playing logical, unflashy Brutus, not flamboyant Antony, to this crowd.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Seven Shakespeare Quotations To Get Us through the Election Year

Why seven? I hope it's a lucky number.

1. "All may be well, but if God sort it so, / 'Tis more than we deserve or I expect."

An anonymous citizen -- he's just called First Citizen -- says this in Richard III, just before malevolent Richard of Gloucester manipulates himself onto the throne. It's striking that Shakespeare would put this confession of personal responsibility for the shape of his country in the mouth of a fifteenth-century commoner, who would have had far less choice than the average American citizen over who governed him. This line has always interested me. An English Everyman suggests that if the highest

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Shakespeare's Gardening Tips

We don't know what kind of gardener Shakespeare was, but we know he could talk like one. Judging from his plays and poems, he knew the names of 5,364 species of plants and herbs. (I made that number up.) The scholar Carolyn Spurgeon wrote that for Shakespeare, "One occupation, one point of view, above all others, is natural . . . that of a gardener; watching, preserving, tending and caring for growing things, especially flowers and fruit" (Shakespeare's Imagery, pub. 1935). She was right. So, in this growing-season, it might be worthwhile to read what the Master Gardener had to say on the subject.

First of all, I should say that Shakespeare believed the Master Gardener to be God. And as a good monarchist, he thought the king of a domain should imitate God and act like a gardener to his subjects. But we can read past the political allegory of his famous "King as Gardener" comments in Richard II and derive some helpful tips about actual gardening. In the relevant scene, a wizened old gardener tells his