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

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Terrorism, Madness, Nostalgia -- Now and Then

I live in Kalamazoo, Michigan, where recently a guy working as an Uber driver shot eight people because he thought he was receiving coded instructions to do so from the dispatcher on his phone.

Crazy, right? And yet the reason this man seems so clearly, evidently nuts is that no one shared his belief. It was a private lunacy.

It would be comforting to think only isolated people are prone to the kinds of imaginings that lead to explosive violence. But in fact, there's no evidence to support this idea. Most isolated people don't bother other people. (And in fact, this Uber driver was not particularly isolated. He had a family.) What's actually true is that the greatest acts of violence are perpetrated not by lonely people, but by people whose lunacy is stoked by fellow believers -- by those who share and encourage a communal fantasy about a higher power who is directing them to shoot or blow something up, in the name of God or country or some other cause. Social groups can do a lot of damage. And the bigger the social group is, the less apparent it is, when that group becomes murderous, that its members are not only violent, but insane. Collectively insane. They have convinced themselves that ordinary people going about their business are actually not people, but targets.

Commonly these people are angry because something in their world is no longer the way it used to be. They want the world around them to match a world they think

Friday, April 1, 2016

Shakespeare and Gunpowder

What did Shakespeare think about gunpowder? Did you ever wonder? Did he ever blow anything up? Did he ever fire a gun? What would he have thought of our Second Amendment debates? Would he have joined the NRA?

Elizabethan and Jacobean legislators didn't get around to outlawing firearms, since it was such a novel thing to be able to carry one around rather than to have to wheel it onto the battlefield. The big social violence problem during Shakespeare's time was caused not by guns, but by swords, of the new super-sharp and supple Spanish and Italian varieties, with which young men were in the habit of challenging each other in taverns and alleyways

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Foliolio

On March 11th a friend and I are traveling to Wayne State University in Detroit to participate in a Shakespeare conference in honor of Shakespeare's approaching 400th deathday, April 23rd (also, coincidentally, his birthday, as far as we know). The theme of the conference is "Shakespeare on Stage and on the Page," with the "Page" part a reference to the First Folio, the first edition of Shakespeare's dramatic works, published in 1623, of which only about 230 copies exist. First Folio volumes are now touring the country (not independently. They have handlers) and one of them has parked, or been parked, temporarily in Detroit. We're going to see it.

So what?, you say. So nothing. It's just something that's going to happen. At least, we plan for it to happen, though, as Shakespeare points out -- usually on gloomy

Monday, February 1, 2016

More on Bad Historical Fiction

Just so you know, this post is going to end up in the Renaissance even though it doesn't start there. I will begin with a rant against films that exploit history to make a case that concerns their creators' own historical moment, focusing on one particular example.

It's not that I didn't like Ron Howard's In The Heart of the Sea (based -- I'm guessing loosely -- on Nathaniel Philbrick's nonfiction book by the same name). Shipwreck dramas are among my favorites, and this one was kind of fun to watch. The idea had great potential. Around 1850, a young Herman Melville visits Nantucket to interview the last living sailor from the Essex, a ship that was sunk in the 1820s by an angry whale. He's looking for material. So far, so good. The excellent English actor Ben Whishaw plays Mellville, and the no less brilliant Irish actor Brendan Gleeson plays the haunted old sailor who served as cabin-boy on the Essex (and who looks way older than he should look thirty years after early adolescence, but maybe that's what nightmares do to you). The visual details of period and place are well rendered in both the Nantucket and the ocean scenes. The story is mostly portrayed through flashbacks, which center on the experiences of the boat's first mate Owen Chase, played by Chris Hemsworth, who -- despite the hideous Australio-Boston accent he comes up with for the Massachusetts-born Chase -- showed talent playing Thor and hosting SNL and is not so bad here, apart from one thing. There's only so much you can do with a crappy script.

What made this script bad was either the screenwriters' intentional abandonment of any attempt to make its characters speak like New Englanders did two hundred

Friday, January 1, 2016

Shakespeare's Deathday

Shakespeare's four hundredth deathday is approaching, and Shakespeare enthusiasts everywhere are unleashing a frenzy of commemorative and celebratory Shakespeare events to mark the milestone. However, because it is a downer to celebrate someone's death, the occasion is being described as the anniversary not of a playwright's shuffling off of his mortal coil, but of the birth of his legacy, which mostly means his plays. This festive rebranding requires a little chronological fudging, since the First Folio -- the first collected edition of Shakespeare's plays -- appeared not in the year of his death but seven years later, in 1623, even though the Folger Library is choosing 2016 as the year to lend some of these priceless Folios to universities throughout the U.S. to be feted and celebrated because it's Shakespeare's 400th deathday (or deathyear. The actual day will be April 23rd). Yes, I do mean the books themselves will be feted and honored, almost as though they are visiting dignitaries. And why not? As the source of four hundred years worth of performance scripts and hours of reading pleasure, they deserve to be. If we're going to fetishize a book, it might as well be the First Folio. Of course, since Shakespeare lovers jump at any chance to