Tuesday, December 1, 2020
Sunday, November 1, 2020
Wednesday, September 30, 2020
Shakespeare's history plays offer us case studies contrasting different kinds of leaders. Mostly these leaders are medieval monarchs, whose modes of governance and levels of power differ hugely from those of contemporary heads of state (or would-be heads of state). But we wouldn't still be staging, watching, and reading Shakespeare if we didn't see ourselves in his characters, and our culture in his culture, as in a distant mirror (to adapt the famous phrase of the medievalist historian Barbara Tuchman).
And so, as I prepare to teach Shakespeare's Richard III to a group of undergraduates for perhaps the thirtieth time, I newly notice aspects of the play that speak to, and seem to speak of, the politicians among us, vying for power in this third decade of our twenty-first century. What I'm noticing this time is the two very different speeches given by two rival leaders in the fifth act of Shakespeare's play.
The first speaker is Henry, Earl of Richmond, soon to be crowned Henry VII, the first Tudor king. The second is Richard III, the Yorkist usurper who is defending his throne. In Shakespeare's play, Richard is the villain and Henry is the hero, in two-dimensional characterizations that ignore much of actual history. Shakespeare
Tuesday, September 1, 2020
"Shakespeare gets me; I can say the things I'm trying to say with him. He says it in that funky way or whatever, but what he shows people is what I'm tryng to say. I can take some words from Shakespeare and I can be like, yeah, this is how I feel, I might not have been able to put it into words myself for a long time and he's like there, there's the words you need."
So, on this September day, rather than get into whom Shakespeare would have voted for in the upcoming election (Biden), or which tragic Shakespearean tyrant Trump is most like (none of them, because they're all smart and articulate), or what sort of car Shakespeare would have driven (a Subaru), I'm simply going to list some
Saturday, August 1, 2020
There was no public health administration as such in Elizabethan or Jacobean England. Civic authorities tended to function as health administrators during times of plague, placing obstacles in the way of large assemblies and closing many gathering places when death tolls were high, much as U.S. governors are doing during the coronavirus months (we hope months) today. Doctors -- called variously apothecaries, surgeons, and "chirurgeons" -- did a thriving business, but they did business on their own. Most were quacks, though many were sincere quacks, though that's very likely a contradiction in terms. The word "quack," used in relation to medical fraud, is almost as old as Shakespeare, though in its earliest use it was a verb. A 1628 text speaks of dishonest doctors "quacking for patients." But
Wednesday, July 1, 2020
Monday, June 1, 2020
This is not to say that we can't discern Shakespeare's attitude on some subjects. It is only to say that doing so is a complex, lengthy, and painstaking effort that requires, paradoxically, not trying to discern Shakespeare's attitude. Instead, we learn Shakespeare's mind as a secondary result of getting to know his plays. If you immerse yourself in Shakespeare's work the way you would surrender yourself to a conversation, not pursuing an agenda but simply hearing what is said, you eventually get to know, from a thousand repeated explicit or subtle suggestions, how Shakespeare viewed certain issues, or, at least, to which views he inclined. You may notice, for example, that every man in Shakespeare who is prone to soliloquy rather than to conversation falls prey to unfounded jealousy of his wife or lover, and this may lead you to suspect that Shakespeare thought isolation bred tormenting delusions. Or you may come to recognize a sympathy for woodlands in the very quantity and variety of sylvan plants that spring up in Shakespeare's dialogue, whether these plants are directly described as part of the imaginary landscape, or whether, as happens more often, they function metaphorically to describe some human experience. In The Winter's Tale, Perdita speaks of "pale primroses, / That die unmarried ere they can behold / Bright Phoebus in his strength -- a malady / Most incident to maids."
So, we may ask, in this day of angry crowds demonstrating and, sometimes, looting in cities across America, in the wake of the latest police murder of a black man --
Friday, May 1, 2020
There was a second outbreak of plague in London while Shakespeare was there, in 1603, and a milder one in 1605. During none of these plague years did civic authorities outlaw church services, and they rarely interfered with people's shopping, but they did outlaw morally sketchier gatherings in which people pressed
Wednesday, April 1, 2020
Sunday, March 1, 2020
Indeed, English Renaissance writers tended only to fantasize about what we would call socialism. In his 1513 Utopia, Thomas More envisions a society in which all property is equally shared, but in real life, he lived in a manor, and expended no effort, in his influential role as Lord Chancellor, to urge laws that might redistribute royal wealth, or the wealth of privileged men like himself. In The Tempest, written nearly a century later, Shakespeare's kindly old nobleman Gonzalo imagines a "commonwealth" where there will be neither riches nor poverty, no commerce or forced labor, and no "sovereignty," but places himself as "king on't," as though "the latter end of his commonwealth forgets the beginning." Renaissance literature is full of ideas about equalizing wealth and eliminating poverty, but the ideas are always
Saturday, February 1, 2020
A post-colonially-minded colleague of mine once asked to visit my Shakespeare class, and I said, sure! He told my students that the reason Shakespeare was a requirement for their degree was that in the prior century in India, the British Raj had determined that requiring the study of Shakespeare in schools was an effective instrument of cultural indoctrination and control. Cricket was the English national game, and Shakespeare was the English national poet.