Sunday, December 1, 2019

My Shakespearean Grandmother

My parents were pack rats, who kept in our attic not only decades-old Christmas cards and records of paid bills from previous residences, but all the relics of their own pack-rat parents after those died. All this stuff was left for me and my siblings to sort through when my dad passed away ten years ago. We're still sifting. Among the sometimes amazing detritus, I uncovered an ancient theatrical makeup kit from Harlowe & Luther Druggists, 46th and Broadway. It looked a century old, and so it was. When I lifted its lid I found trays bearing boxes of "Finest Theatrical Face Powder," made by Oscar F. Bernner of New York; " "Rexall Theatrical Cold Cream (Prepared Especially for the Profession and General Toilet Purposes by United Drug Co., Boston & St. Louis)," some bright lipsticks and "Rouge fin de theatre" from Paris, and numerous brushes and puffs long-stained with these same paints and powders.

I knew instantly whose treasure this had been. My grandmother Teresa Tiffany, nee Crowley, born on July 28th, 1900 (my own birthday some six decades later), had for the entire time I knew her on this earth bragged about her experiences acting on the New York stage, while my mother discreetly rolled her eyes. "I was in the theatah!," Nana would proclaim, her arm lifted high like SNL's Master Thespian,

Friday, November 1, 2019

The Fifth of November

The Fifth of November will soon once more be upon us, just in time for me to give my students a wickedly challenging short-essay test on Macbeth, chock-full of equivocal and deceptive language, just like the play. I always try to time our Macbeth discussions for this time of year, an appropriately scary season, what with Halloween being followed by the Day of the Dead and then the English holiday, Guy Fawkes Day. And, of course, the Fifth of November -- Guy Fawkes Day -- is particularly important to Shakespeare's play.

For those who don't know the story: November 5, 1605, was the date on which a group of English Catholic zealots planned to blow up the House of Lords, killing the Protestant King James and all of his Protestant ministers of state; and to begin the restoration of England to a Catholic monarchy. Various Catholic candidates were considered for the soon-to-be-empty throne. Only things never got to that point, because someone leaked, and the barrels of gunpowder were discovered in the parliamentary cellarage right on the eve of the planned massacre (scheduled to occur on Parliament's opening day, for maximal bloodshed). Guy Fawkes was not the head of the conspiracy. He was only the plotter unlucky enough to be found guarding the gunpowder. Presumably he'd been given the task of lighting the fuse. Instead, after a bout of Tower torture, he accepted the job of pinpointing the other conspirators, and for months thereafter, it was more dangerous than ever to be a Catholic in England.

What does this have to do with Macbeth? Well, it is widely agreed among scholars that this play, performed in 1606 and focused on Scottish king-killing (the new king of England, James I, was Scottish), was written in part to capitalize on the public's interest in recent events. More than that, the play's famous Witches, who utter the deceptive prophecies that lead king-killer Macbeth to his doom, are thought to have been a fanciful allusion to the Catholic priests who were in on the plot. In Shakespeare's time Catholic priests were banned from England's shores on pain of death, but priests sneaked in anyway, proselytizing, serving the needs of the faithful, and, in some cases, looking the other way when Catholic plotters came to them seeking absolution for planned acts of terrorism. Well-meant terrorism; that is. Terrorism in the long-term interests of England's collective soul.

When the Gunpowder Plotters so spectacularly failed, the climate became ripe for a play which exploited English fears of Catholic violence and reminded Londoners what a very bad thing it was to kill a king. We can imagine that King James, who was now Shakespeare's company's official patron, also liked to have this last message spread about. Was Shakespeare himself Catholic, as some (Catholic) Shakespeareans are so fond of arguing? Stranger things have turned out to be true, although Macbeth's anti-Catholicism is part of the mountain of evidence to the contrary that, to prove their contention, would need to be explained away. To me it seems that Shakespeare's plays, Macbeth included, tell us nothing about where he stood on the Catholic question. Macbeth does, however, confirm that he knew what an audience might like to see in 1606.

Remember, remember, the Fifth of November, the Gunpowder Treason and Plot! There's really no reason that gunpowder treason should ever be forgot. In England, on what they also call "Bonfire Night," it is not forgot(ten). Nor is it in my classroom. I already have my Guy Fawkes mask ready.

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Good Shakespeare Quotations for Our Current Political Moment

I know, I know, everyone keeps dragging Shakespeare into our discussions of Donald Trump. I myself have complained about this international tendency, e'en on this blog (and even while engaging in it myself). I have kvetched not because I don't like to see people connect Shakespeare to current events, but because I find most of the comparisons between Trump and Shakespeare's villains unfair to Shakespeare's villains. Yet, notwithstanding, as I read and reread Shakespeare's plays, I am repeatedly struck by how precisely this or that character's words apply to the crisis afflicting the U.S. government right now, as the House of Representatives moves to impeach our Horror-in-Chief. So I thought Shakespeare lovers, and those many others who are also appalled by the Dear Orange Leader, might appreciate a list of lines that eloquently described his, and our, situation.
1. "Now does he feel his title / Hang loose about him, like a giant's robe / Upon a dwarfish thief" (Macbeth 5.2). I quote this line with apology to dwarfs. And

Sunday, September 1, 2019

Shakespeare Mocks the Working Man (and Woman)

Since Shakespeare had something to say about everything, as Labor Day approaches, it seems appropriate to ask, what did he have to say about the working man and woman? More precisely, how did he represent working men and women on stage? Well. A brief consideration of his most notable working class characters -- and there aren't many, compared to the gentry -- suggests what we already knew. Shakespeare, though of working class origin himself, was an elitist snob who identified intellect with aristocracy, and used characters who worked with their hands -- "leather-apron men," as they were called -- as figures of fun. Likeable, good-hearted, but not so bright.

This is interesting, because Shakespeare, famously, was the son of a glovemaker who had also worked as a tanner (a skinner of  cattle for their leather hides). It's hard to believe that Shakespeare himself wouldn't have gotten his hands greasy at some phase of his upbringing. You'd think young William, bursting out of the lower (though not at all the lowest) echelons of society by means of his reading and his wit, would have written in defense of the intellect of his earlier peers (peers in the modern sense of the word). After all, his greatest rival, Ben Jonson, who had once worked as a bricklayer, and who, like

Thursday, August 1, 2019

False Friends

For the past forty years I've been trying to become fluent in Spanish. (I'm slow.) One of the tricky things about Spanish, and, I assume, other Romance languages, is that many of the cognates -- the words that look similar and have the same Latin origins -- do not have identical meanings. These kinds of words are called "false friends," because you think they're your friends, and they're not. You think you can just say "deceptionante" to mean "deceptive." But "deceptionante" is deceiving, and also disappointing, which is how  you will find life after you misuse the word in front of someone who knows Spanish, because it means "disappointing." You'll also be embarrassed, but don't say you feel "embarajada," because that means "pregnant." (Talk about embarrassing.)  You can't just say what you mean in Spanish by sticking an "a" or an "o" on the end of a English word, or by pronouncing a word with an "-ion" suffix the Spanish way. Okay, sometimes you can, but not as often as you might hope. "Es raro" in Spanish does not mean "It's rare." It means "It's strange." I tell you, these Spaniards have a different word for everything.

But here's what's really strange (or raro). It's when you read Shakespeare and you gradually realize that the English words in front of you don't mean what you think they mean. Many English words of four centuries ago are false friends, too.

In fact, this factor is overwhelmingly the biggest barrier to understanding Shakespeare's English in the twenty-first century. It's not that his characters often say "thee" and "thou" and "thine." It's not that they use archaic terms like "hither"

Monday, July 1, 2019

Shakespeare's Political Women

Now that a fair number of fair women (okay, three) have entered the presidential race, I thought it might be interesting to consider Shakespeare's political women. The adjective "political" didn't exist in Shakespeare's time, though there was the word "politic," which, when applied to a person, meant covertly self-serving. Certainly Elizabethans had an appreciation of what was (as we would say) political in the social sense, in that members of government were expected to concern themselves with the welfare of the governed, but the word "politic" meant the opposite of that. "Political" as we would use the term -- meaning desirous of power, but, hopefully wanting it for ideological reasons, to do good by one's own lights -- had no exact English equivalent four hundred years ago. But there was the thing, if there wasn't the name. We know, of course, of a very important political woman in Shakespeare's own life, namely Queen Elizabeth I, the strong monarch whose court his company enlivened, on occasion, with stagings of his plays. According to rumor, Elizabeth loved Falstaff. According to fact, she disliked and feared Richard II, with its scene explicitly and brazenly staging the historical removal of a king (one of her ancestral relations) from his consecrated office, by a kingly usurper (another of her relations). That scene made her nervous.

What this shows is that Queen Elizabeth quite rightly saw her reflection in the male monarchs Shakespeare presented in his late-sixteenth-century history plays. Perhaps she also saw her reflection in Titania, the Fairy Queen of the 1595 A Midsummer Night's Dream (who wants power so she can protect a child). But there is little or no record of Queen Liz's reactions to the non-regnant political women of

Saturday, June 1, 2019

Trump: The Poor Man's Richard the Second

This spring, in a graduate seminar, I taught a series of the historical tragedies of Shakespeare. I did my best to avoid making comparisons between Donald Trump and the protagonists of Richard the Third, Macbeth, and King Lear, partly because I thought some of my medievalist students might have voted for our national golem. (I hope I'm wrong.) Mainly I avoided the subject because I find such comparisons an insult to Richard the Third, Macbeth, and King Lear.

But when we came to Richard the Second, the parallels were too obvious for any of us to miss.

Richard II, pictured above on the right, is the less famous King Richard. He's the one whose bones weren't discovered in a Leicester parking lot in 2015. He died

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Had the BEOWULF Poet Written KING LEAR's Storm Scene ....

I have taught many brilliant students, but one who is forever enshrined in my memory is a young man named Ian Hollenbaugh, who invented a language. He didn't do this in or for my class, but for his honors thesis. It was a whole language, with its own vocabulary and complex but logical grammatical rules, and, like Tolkien with Elvish, Ian made it up for fun.

I met Ian a couple of years before he performed this feat. For the first few weeks that he sat quietly in my Early British Literature survey class, I didn't know he was a genius. Even after he turned in his first essay, on Anglo-Saxon poetry, I didn't know. Instead, I thought he was a plagiarist. He had to be. This was an undergraduate survey course, and what I was reading was work of publishable quality that would have surprised me coming from a graduate student. Clearly it derived from someone else's pen -- or computer.

I spoke to Ian after our next class. I didn't tell him my suspicions, though he

Monday, April 1, 2019

An Easter Meditation on UnShakespearean Language

Every April Fool's Day I used to post a joke article about Shakespeare that I thought was funny, even if nobody else did. The first one, in 2013, was a claim that a missing scene from Romeo and Juliet had been found. Then there was the one about Macbeth's remains having been located in a supermarket freezer in Aberdeen. I'm not going to write a joke post this year, because too many people always think they're real, and also because nothing seems incredible enough to be amusing since Donald Trump got elected president. That was when irony died. I considered, "Donald Trump Claims MAGA Speeches More Popular than Shakespeare's Hamlet," but the only incredible thing about that headline is its implication that Trump has heard of Shakespeare. Then I thought, maybe, "Banquo's Ghost Authored The Art of the Deal," except I think that is actually true.

So, in lieu of a joke post in the month of Shakespeare's 455th birthday, I'm going to make yet another list of modern terms and phrases which I don't like, and which I'm convinced Shakespeare would make fun of. There are so many! But, as in the past, I've limited my list to ten.

1. A piece of whatever. People who are speaking publicly in front of other people about some allegedly important subject, whether they are on the radio or the TV

Friday, March 1, 2019

Borges on Shakespeare

I spent three times as much money acquiring permissions to create this book as I got paid to do it. First there was Penguin U.S.A., which owned the rights to the mystical Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges' stories in English. Then there were Penguin, Canada, and Penguin, U.K., who owned the rights to these stories' republication in those realms. And then there was the Borges Estate itself, which owned the rights to everything else: Borges' previously untranslated essays, the records of Borges' lectures, Borges' untranslated essays and poems. Finally, there was the Folger Shakespeare Library, which appeared (they weren't sure) to own rights to an untranscribed tape of one of Borges' late lectures. But everyone finally graciously agreed to sign off -- the Folger did so for free, and a nice man at Penguin U.S.A. who liked the project gave me a permissions deal -- and now there exists this book: Borges on Shakespeare. It presents in one volume, in English, pretty much everything the great Latin American author (of famous, paradoxical short stories like "The Library of Babel," "The Circular Ruins," and "The Zahir") had to say about Shakespeare in Spanish. And a few things which he said in English, because I did listen to that untranscribed, very rough tape about twenty-five times until I was sure I had understood and transcribed 95% of what it said.

That tape is the only record of a talk Borges gave in Washington, D.C., on the occasion of Shakespeare's 412th birthday, in 1976. Borges himself was 77, and mostly blind. He was helped to the microphone, but, unfortunately, not helped close enough to the microphone. According to one eyewitness, the audience was too

Friday, February 1, 2019

More Things People Should Stop Saying Because Shakespeare Wouldn't Like Them

It's once more time for me to complain about words and phrases that I want people to stop using. Instead, people should read Shakespeare and find superior Elizabethan terms, and reintroduce them into our twenty-first century lexicon. Are you ready?

1. "Special ask": I heard this one over the radio during NPR's last pledge fund drive, as I was sitting in my car not pledging money because I assumed someone else would do it in my place. What confirmed me in the wisdom of my decision was the NPR fundraiser's suddenly making "a special ask to everyday listeners." If only she had made a special request, I would have stepped up to the plate. But I could not in conscience respond to a "special ask." In place of this vile term, I recommend what Orlando says in As You Like It

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Shakespeare, "Black Mirror," and Free Will

I recently saw an episode of the British series Black Mirror in which a slightly-on-the-edge 1980s game-designer finds himself controlled by the series' twenty-first-century audience. An interactive function enabled me to select the musical cassette tape the character "chose" to play (the Thompson Twins!), an answer he gave in a job interview, and various other of his minor and major "decisions." At one point, using my remote, I was able to inform him via his clunky 80s computer screen that I was watching him on Netflix, a media-streaming Internet-based entertainment platform. Of course, he found my message incomprehensible, and it increased his frustration and despair. (Sorry, character.)

The idea that all our choices are predetermined, and thus not really choices at all, has acquired currency from recent psychological experiments demonstrating that the conscious experience of the choice to move one of one's body parts follows the neurological reaction that initiates the motion ( In other words, scientists found that before their subjects were aware of having decided to move, something in the subjects' brains had begun preparing for the movement. This is creepy, suggesting that we are robots controlled by somebody or even by nobody (although the experiment doesn't actually prove we are robots. More on this below). Video games have given us, and Netflix, a lively and novel metaphor to express the vision of a reality in which, feeling free, we are actually mysteriously monitored PAC-men and Ms. PAC-men, with the PAC standing (as that Black Mirror episode suggests) for "Program-and-Control." This techy way of thinking is newish.