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.

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

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Too Dumb For Tragedy

A friend who works in Washington tells me the only way people can understand current political craziness is to read Shakespeare. I know what she means. I think Shakespeare is connected to everything and vice versa. So many other folks also think this that Shakespearish interpretations of Trump have been a feature of news and commentary since well before the election. The New York Public Theater is staging a "Trump" Julius Caesar, and just the other day a Washington Post article compared the U.S. president to the mad and erratic King Lear. It's easy to understand the association. Like Lear, Trump is childishly sensitive to insult and makes rash decisions based on his sense of personal injury. And the actions of a president, which have momentous implications for an entire people, naturally prompt thoughts of tragedy, which since its origins in Aeschylus has represented mistakes in high places.

But at the same time I'm offended by these comparisons, not on Trump's behalf, but on behalf of King Lear, Richard III, and Macbeth. I consider these characters friends. The fact is, Trump is way too dumb to be a credible real-world analogue for any of them. Despite their huge flaws, Shakespeare's heroes are highly intelligent,

Monday, May 1, 2017

Kalamazoo, Syrians, and Shakespeare

In Kalamazoo, Michigan, where I live, various churches and charities have been busy helping about 30 newly arrived Syrian families who have managed to acquire refugee status in the United States. Most of these families have a lot of children (one has nine), and so the total number of relocated people is over 200. The first of the families got here in November. Coming from a dry and temperate region, and from refugee camps which lacked room for lots of personal belongings, they arrived for the Michigan winter wearing thin pants and slippers and, for the most part, no overcoats. So the first order of business was clothes.

They got them. Within days, local citizens coordinating charitable efforts were wading through piles of donated ski jackets, snowsuits, hats, mittens, and gloves of all sizes, and looking for a large central warehouse in which to store the extras. Space was soon provided by a mosque near Western Michigan University's campus, where Kalamazooans also brought household items, and a regular Saturday morning

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Shakespeare Scholar Admits He Doesn't Know the Answer to a Question

A  ripple of alarmed confusion coursed through the Sheraton Grand Ballroom in Washington, D.C., yesterday when Professor Daniel Travotti, lecturer in early modern English literature at Britain's esteemed Touchstone University, professed inability to enlighten a questioner who was pretending to be interested in Shakespeare's influence on post-Reformation English theological debates. The public interchange, surely the most startling of this year's Global Shakespeare Conference, took place during the question and answer phase that followed Travotti's keynote talk, and went as follows:

 Is it not also the case that Macbeth's interrogation of the equivocal Witches both registers and promulgates England's growing rejection of interpretive license in the perusal of sacred texts?

I don't know. Whatever.

(Audible breath intake among listeners, followed by a buzz of whispers.)

Questioner (regrouping, after a pause):
What I mean is, given that in the early years of King James's reign, tropes suggestive of Jesuitical doublespeak in the popular theater were at once superficially orthodox yet indirectly subversive, did no central ambiguity result from the early-modern ethos that stressed any individual's power to interpret texts? I mean, an ambiguity which undercut all claims to stable meaning?

You're asking me?

Yes, what I mean is, wasn't Macbeth implicated in this cultural trend toward the destabilization of language-systems as generators of reliable truth claims?

Travotti (shrugging):
Couldn't tell you.

At this point the meeting broke up in confusion. The greater number of attendees, clearly shaken by the breakdown of acceptable conference discourse, solaced themselves with hotel-issue coffee outside the ballroom. Within minutes, rapid exchanges of polysyllabic shibboleths such as "hermeneutical circle," "cultural imaginary," "monolithic hegemony," and "inescapable binary" had restored color to cheeks, and good humor reigned once more.

Yet the effects of the event still reverberated among a large proportion of younger scholars, some of whom were applying for academic jobs at the conference. One Ph.D. student, in answer to an  interviewer's question regarding her dissertation's implications for the "presentist deconstruction of late-Victorian Bradleyism in Shakespeare studies," was heard to reply, "Sir, I have no idea. I was writing about something else."

Reports differ on whether she was abruptly dismissed or offered the job on the spot.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

A Rose Is a Rose Is a Rose, but When Is Shakespeare Fakespeare?

Like many of my fellow Shakespeare professors -- like all of them, in fact -- I have students who like books or movies whose plots are based on Shakespeare. "It's The Taming of the Shrew in an American high school," they say, or, "It's Hamlet, but with animals."

It's not.

When I tell them so, I take care not to criticize the book, movie, play, Youtube short, or TV commercial in question. Each might be good, bad, mediocre, or excellent in its own right. I like the Cole Porter musical Kiss Me, Kate and the film 10 Things I Hate About You and Disney's The Lion King. Having myself written two Shakespeare-based novels, to roll my eyes at such adaptations would be hypocritical. In fact, I can add some celebrated titles to the conversation: Huxley's Brave New World, Dorothy Dunnett's King Hereafter, and Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. There are hundreds of adaptations out

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Updates from Auden, etc.

One of the most annoying idiocies of contemporary internet life is Google's and other corporations' faux-friendly offers to help you out by selecting products for you! Friends for you! News "Recomended For You." Based on the deep understanding of your spiritual and intellectual needs revealed by the last thing you bought on line, the infinitely caring algorithms are making our lives better, easier, and more enjoyable all the time. (Please read E. M. Forster's "The Machine Stops," by the way. Also see Pixar's Wall-E.) Every once in a while these mindless intrusions are as funny as they are annoying, as was the case in an offer a friend of mine received from Amazon a few weeks ago: "Receive updates from Auden!" She and I had fun thinking up some possible updates W. H. Auden might post via website or Twitter, even though he's been dead since 1973. These included:

- Spanish Civil War For Losers. Glad I Didn't Go.
 - Can't Decide Whether Poetry Changes Anything or Not
- Seven Tips for Staying Gay and Sane in Oxford c. 1955

and so on.

Now, it occurs to me that if we can sign up to receive updates from Auden, even more enthralling possibilities exist. As far as I know, William Shakespeare has at

Sunday, January 1, 2017

In the Bleak Midwinter

Often when people learn I'm a Shakespeare professor they ask me what my favorite play is. To this the answer varies according to what I'm teaching students at the moment. I do have favorites, but when we're in the middle of discussing, reading (silently and aloud), and watching scenes from a particular Shakespeare play, that play tends to self-maximize in my esteem. Sometimes it's King Lear, sometimes it's The Merchant of Venice or Macbeth. Most often it's Hamlet, probably because I teach Hamlet most often. I had a colleague at the University of New Orleans who taught a three-credit class in Hamlet which lasted a full semester; it probably wasn't enough time. At the same time -- though probably not literally at the same time -- another professor I know of taught a class exclusively