A Shakespearean Glance at the People and Issues of the Day.

Saturday, December 31, 2005

Titus Andronicus and Northern Uganda


The Lord's Resistance Army, led by Joseph Kony, has been fighting in Northern Uganda against the Museveni government. The Army's tactics include the mutilation of civilians in combat areas. Lips, ears and more have been severed in an attempt to terrorize and silence Ugandans who might otherwise cooperate with the authorities (accited means summoned):

Marcus: "He by the senate is accited home
From weary wars against the barbarous Goths,
That with his sons, a terror to our foes,
Hath yoked a nation strong,…".

Marcus, in Titus Andronicus, welcoming Titus home in triumph from wars prosecuted against Germanic hordes. Titus is one of Shakespeare's less poetic but more bloody dramas and when I began bardseye I hardly expected to have much recourse to it. But to accurately reflect much of the world we have before us, Titus turns out to be a card to be played:

Aaron: "Even now I curse the day – and yet, I think,
Few come within the compass of my curse –
Wherein I did not some notorious ill,
As kill a man, or else devise his death,
Ravish a maid, or plot the way to do it,
Accuse some innocent and foreswear myself,
Set deadly enmity between two friends,
Make poor men's cattle break their necks,
Set fire on barns and haystacks in the night
And bid the owners quench them with their tears.
Oft have I digged up dead men from their graves
And set them upright at their dear friends' door,
Even when their sorrows almost was forgot."

Aaron the Moor, taking a bow in Act V of Titus after he's finally arrested. But despite his arrest, there is no restoration of moral order at the close of the play. Shakespeare remains true to the spirit of each era he attempts to recreate and here he is recreating Rome in decline. Bloodthirsty barbarian hordes, led by the Goth Tamora and her clan, make their appearance and clash with the late Roman justice of the Andronici clan, which is nearly as bloody.

Lavinia: "'Tis present death I beg, and one thing more
That woman hood denies me tongue to tell;
O, keep me from their worse-than-killing lust,
And tumble me into some loathsome pit,
Where never man's eye may behold my body!
Do this, and be a charitable murderer."

Tamora: "So should I rob my sweet sons of their fee.
No, let them satisfy their lust on thee."

Demetrius: "Away! For thou hast stayed us here too long."

Lavinia: "No grace, no womanhood? Ah, beastly creature!
The blot and enemy to our general name!"

Meanwhile in Northern Uganda, eighteen hundred years later, a medical mission has been put together to help put together the mutilated faces of civilians caught up in the factional fighting. Medicins Sans Frontieres and the Dutch Interplast Foundation have initiated large-scale provision of reconstructive surgery for the victims. Much of the work will focus on the repair of lips, utilizing tissue from the interior of the victims' mouths.

Hamlet: "Diseases desperate grown
By desperate appliance are relieved,
Or not at all."

Of course this is a heartening exercise, but without taking away from these fine and moving efforts, Bardseye has to ask if it is sufficient to respond to ongoing mutilation and mass murder in the third world by laying band-aids on the wounds of its surviving victims. The exploitation visited on sub-Saharan Africa by European colonialization in the past has rendered today's European societies unwilling to intercede in the region again, (or to permit America to do so without suffering an accusation of neo-colonialism) even to alleviate manifest widespread suffering and human rights abuses.

The sins of the fathers have rendered the sons guilt-ridden and paralyzed, and the civilians of Northern Uganda, not to mention the Congo, Angola, Sudan and other countries, are the ones who subsidize these exquisite old world sensibilities.

Macbeth: "I am in blood
Stepped in so far that, should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o'er."

Friday, December 30, 2005

Lord Montague's Lesson


Good morning, students. Quiet please. Well, ok, quieter, please.

We left off last time in Act I scene I with Benvolio describing Romeo's melancholy mood to Romeo's parents. Let's listen to Romeo's dad Mr. Montague as he answers Benvolio. Who would like to read? A show of hands? A show of hand? No one? No one except Suzie? All right. Suzie.

"Teacher's pet."

I heard that, Ralph. All right, then. Ralph, let's have you read.


Ralph, I do not see that word in the text. Proceed.

"Many a morning hath he there been seen,
With tears augmenting the fresh morning's dew,
Adding to clouds more clouds with his deep sighs;
But all so soon as the all-cheering sun
Should in the farthest east begin to draw
The shady curtains from Aurora's bed,
Away from light steals home my heavy son
And private in his chamber pens himself,
Shuts up his windows, locks fair daylight out,
And makes himself an artificial night,
Black and portentous must this humor prove
Unless good counsel may the cause remove."

Thank you, Ralph, for that unenthusiastic rendering. So what did Montague already know about what Benvolio told him? Anyone? Hath he where been seen? Consult your notes from yesterday. Raul, you cannot take notes without a notebook. Well then borrow some paper. A pen? Here, use mine. I will want it back. Anyone? Anyone besides Suzie? Yes, Cho.

"By those sycamores."

Correct. He's made a habit of hanging around the sycamores, where he was augmenting the dew with his tears. How can tears augment dew? These types of analogies will figure heavily in your SAT examinations.

"They're both wet."

Very good Natasha. And the clouds business? Cho?

"His deep sighs are like clouds."

Yes again. We are cooking with gas. Additional clouds. Moving right along. OK, we have an all-cheering sun. Is the sun waving pom poms on the sidelines of last week's disastrous game? Yes? No?

"Its' cheering you up."

Correct again, Suzie. That kind of cheering. And the sun, like your mother in the morning, draws the curtains from Aurora's bed. Who's Aurora?

"She transferred last year."

"Yeah. Her dad got a job - ."

Not that Aurora. How would Shakespeare have met – never mind. He means Aurora the Greek goddess of dawn.

"Honest, Mr. Abrams, how're we ever supposed to know all this stuff?"

Well, you could let me teach it to you. Moreover, any good Shakespeare book is going to have a ton of footnotes for you.

"We don't want to stop every ten seconds to check some stupid footnote."

Well, you get to learn stuff from them, like who the Greek Goddess of dawn was. Aurora. Plus you only have to do it the first time.

"The first time? You think we're ever gonna read this stuff twice."

Don't you listen to your favorite bubble gum pop songs more than once on your beanpods?

"Ipods. And what do you mean by bubble gum pop -,"

Let's proceed. Away from light steals home my heavy son. Is Romeo fat? I mean weight challenged? Why does Shakespeare choose the word 'light' instead of sun or day?

"Why don't you go ask him?"

Cute. No, ask yourself. Look elsewhere in the same line.

"Oh. Heavy. He's making a pun."

"A bad pun. That 'light' isn't the opposite of that 'heavy.'

No it isn't. But he knows you know that. He's just having fun. As are we. Isn't learning Shakespeare in a classroom fun? OK, next, Romeo pens himself in his chamber. Does he write on himself? Ha ha! No? Not funny? Ok, it's pen as in pig pen, and chamber as in room. Locks himself up in his room. And he steals home when?

"When the cheerful sun draws Aurora's curtains."


"So Romeo's a vampire."

He's mimicking one. Note that he next locks out fair daylight and makes himself an artificial night. Know of anyone who does that?

"Sandra does."

No names please.

"Well, she does. The black mascara. The studded collar. The trenchcoat."

"The principal made her give those up."

"Not the leather pants, he didn't."

"Those have got to be hot. I mean, can you imagine a cow wearing skin?"

Huh? A cow? Wearing what? All right, all right. Students. My point is made. People your age will always and at times feel the urge to lock fair daylight out and make an artificial night. The Columbine high school massacre need not be the end result, although in Romeo and Juliet, it is.

"Cool! When do we get there."

Patience. Natasha, please restate those last two lines in everyday English. Take your time.

"His mood must end up being black and threatening unless good advise removes whatever's causing it."

Very good.

"He needs a Dr. Phil."

"Dr. Phil needs a Dr. Phil. You hear about that?"

"About what?"

(Bell rings.)

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Bardseye Viewers are invited to take the bardseye survey. Click below to let me know who you see as today's Hamlet, today's Julius Caesar, today's Cleopatra and today's Lady Macbeth. I will write a blog post for the winning candidates for each - the Hamlet, Caesar, Cleopatra and Lady M that you select.

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Thursday, December 29, 2005

Sonnet #59 and Reincarnation


Dead Again is the 1991 thriller directed and starred in by Kenneth Branagh, who is this generation's leading expositor of Shakespeare on the screen. Dead Again, however, has a modern setting and deals not with Shakespeare but with reincarnation. But then come to think of it, so does Shakespeare, in Sonnet 59:

If there be nothing new, but that which is
Hath been before, how are our brains beguiled,
Which, laboring for invention, bear amiss
The second burden of a former child!

Nothing is new, and everything that is has been here before. Our brains, which labor for invention, are tricked into ignoring the second burden of raising a child already raised.

The child we are tricked into re-raising seems to be our entire culture, which we are tricked into perpetuating, with the suggestion that opting out from assuming this burden might be the logical response.

You would need to consult with adherents of Hinduism, perhaps at this admirable Sepiamutiny site, to see if they agree with the Bard's interpretation. India's recent economic rise, reflecting an eagerness to labor for invention, suggests that a belief in reincarnation need not engender a corresponding sense of futility.

In Branagh's Dead Again, the two lovers are separated by a murder for which one of them is wrongly condemned and executed. Their spirits are then re-poured into two new bodies (with an obligatory gender-reversing twist) and then reunited by destiny forty years later.

Whatever. It was tightly written and directed and got Branagh on the radar screen. And who knows if this generation's splendid incarnation of Shakespearean movies produced under his hand (the second burden of a former child indeed) would have come into being otherwise:

O, that record could with a backward look,
Even of five hundred courses of the sun,
Show me your image in some antique book,
Since mind at first in character was done!

Did Shakespeare see Branagh's movie? "Since mind at first in character" means since thoughts were first set down in writing. He even knew about Chinese characters! I think that few western minds (more accurately minds raised is the west) fail to flirt with the concept of reincarnation. The idea is certainly romantic, although the odds are vanishingly small of finding one's star-crossed lover among three billion members of the opposite sex (whoops – members of one's preferred sex) who are spread throughout the world. Does reincarnation include the proviso that reborn lovers settle in the same suburban communities in order to meet each other? I suppose the answer is - why not? But let's look at Shakespeare's answer (Remember to say compo-sed. It's more Shakespearean! Also we'er means whether):

That I might see what the old world could say
To this composed wonder of your frame;
Whether we are mended, or we'er better they,
Or whether revolution be the same.

How would the old world have reacted to the compo-sed wonder of you? Now there's your breathtaking love poetry for you. And parenthetically how would our world compare to theirs – better, worse or a draw?

In place of asking for the check, English sonnet readers call for the concluding couplet, and here's ours:

O, sure I am the wits of former days
To subjects worse have given admiring praise.

Yesterday's poets have written about less important subjects than this. Well, that's a kind of fudge of the issue - both dismissive and accepting, and probably representative of the usual western view of reincarnation. Attractive, undisprovable, foreign in origin and thus not requiring serious thought or a final conclusion.

Bardseye's view is that whatever we take with us into the next life can hardly be expected to remain our property and certainly would not include our personalities. Old spirit – enriched or degraded by prior contact with flesh – may be poured into new vessels, but it won't be "our" individual spirits, again in bardseye's modest view. Those seeking solace in advance of death (and well, that would be all of us) should thus look elsewhere. The contemplation of timeless truths in religion, or of works of timeless beauty in art, seem like the best starting points.

And so do all roads lead to Shakespeare.

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Please remember to take the bardseye survey (for which problem now corrected). Click below to let me know who you see as today's Hamlet, today's Julius Caesar, today's Cleopatra and today's Lady Macbeth. I will write a blog post for the winning candidates for each - the Hamlet, Caesar, Cleopatra and Lady M that you select.

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Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Titus Andronicus and (Dis)Honor Killings


In Titus Andronicus, we are in ancient Rome in the period of the late empire. Roman civilization is declining and Germanic or "barbarian" tribes are arriving from the east. Whether the arrival of the barbarians was the cause of the fall of Rome is a question Shakespeare does not seek to answer. He was wise to avoid it, since even today we are unsure whether the cause was imperial overstretch, cultural decadence, the arrival of the Antonine plagues (possibly from Central Asian plague-carrying rodents and possibly due to the opening of the Silk Road), or even chronic disease caused by Rome's use of lead water pipes.

But I digress.

Shakespeare, instead, is interested in the clash between Germanic tribal culture and Roman civilization. He presents Titus returning to Rome in military triumph as the head of the Andronici, a Roman clan. On the Germanic side we have Tamora, the matriarch of what you could term either a very, very extended Gothic family or a horde of Goths. Tamora's horde is responsible for killing Titus' son in battle and Titus starts the bloodshed off early by ordering the ritual revenge killing of Tamora's son Alarbus:

Titus: "These are they whom your Goths beheld
Alive and dead, and for their brethren slain
Religiously they ask a sacrifice.
To this your son is marked, and die he must
T' appease their groaning shadows that are gone."

Sounds reasonable. But not to Tamora, and in short order Titus loses two sons, has his daughter Lavinia raped and mutilated (her hands and tongue are cut off), and even has one of his own hands cut off in the bargain. Halloween stores must be appealed to for false blood each time a production company attempts to stage this play. Here's Titus in Act V scene III, seeking counsel on how to set things right:

Titus: "Was it well done of rash Virginius
To slay his daughter with his own right hand
Because she was enforced, stained, and deflowered?"

Saturninus: "It was, Andronicus."

Titus: "Your reason, mighty lord?"

Sat: "Because the girl should not survive her shame,
And by her presence still renew her sorrows."

Titus: "A reason mighty, strong, and effectual;
A pattern, precedent, and lively warrant
For me, most wretched, to perform the like,
Die, die, Lavinia, and thy shame with thee,
And with thy shame thy father's sorrow die!"
. (He kills Lavinia).

Whoops! Well, I guess that was one way for Titus to go. And in Pakistan last week Nazir Ahmed, a 40-year old laborer, went in the same direction. While his 25 year old step-daughter Muqadas lay sleeping, he slit her throat with a machete, motivated by her husband's accusation of her infidelity. (Neighbors claim she was in fact abused by her husband and forced to work in a brick-making factory, but I suppose that's not really the crucial point.) Ahmed then slit the throats of his own three daughters, Bano, Sumaira and Humaira, aged (forever) 8, 7, and 4 respectively, reasoning that it was inevitable that they would grow up to emulate their step-sister. Tamora, witnessing Titus do the same, speaks for us all:

Tamora: "Why hast thou slain thine only daughter thus?"

Sadly, Titus, answering Tamora, speaks only for Ahmed:

Titus: "Not I, 'twas Chiron and Demetrius,
They ravished her and cut away her tongue,
And they, 'twas they that did her all this wrong."

Sat: "Go fetch them hither to us presently."

Titus: "Why there they are, both baked in this pie,
Whereof their mother daintily hath fed…".

Titus means this. He had already killed and baked Tamora's sons Chiron and Demetrius in a pie which he had then served to Tamora.

So where were we anyway, Rome in decline or Pakistan? And does it matter? The independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan has recorded over 260 such "honor" killings in the first 11 months of 2005.

The true model for all this is the Ku Klux Klan, a program of local terrorism designed to keep a subject population subjugated, though in this case it is women instead of blacks. The fact that Ahmed probably did not plan or discuss his family bloodletting with the other 259 of this year's Pakistani (dis)honor killers is not really relevant. The effect is the same, and has been for centuries.

The hooded domestic terrorism America saw arise in the South after the Civil War and run for a century before being stomped out has been running for millennia in other parts of the world. Shall we retreat with Representative Murtha and let millennia more pass by? And how safe will our own women remain from a re-infiltration of such practices, one way or another, if we set ourselves not against them?

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I've devised a brief survey for you bardseye viewers. Click below to let me know who you see as today's Hamlet, today's Julius Caesar, today's Cleopatra and today's Lady Macbeth. I will write a blog post for the winning candidates for each - the Hamlet, Caesar, Cleopatra and Lady M that you select.

Click here to take survey

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Romeo Decoded


Except for his love of Juliet, Romeo is a bit of a Hamlet. We first hear of him brooding in the sycamore trees, avoiding his friend Benvolio and hiding from the sun in his room. When Ben questions him, Romeo offers a Hamletty discourse on love, one which sees both sides to the point of paralysis:

Rom: "O heavy lightness, serious vanity
Misshapen chaos of well-seeming forms,
Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health,
Still-waking sleep, …"


Rom: "Love is a smoke made with the fume of sighs;
Being purged, a fire sparkling in lovers' eyes;
Being vexed, a sea nourished with lovers' tears.
What is it else? A madness most discreet,
A choking gall, and a preserving sweet."

To the chagrin of our romantic hearts, the love Romeo professes is not for Juliet but for some other girl named Rosaline. It will occur to the reader to therefore wonder if the Bard is serious or tongue-in-cheek when it comes to love.

How are we to tell? Bardseye suggests a taste test. Compare the above Rosaline poetry to the poetry the Bard later gives to Romeo to describe Juliet:

Rom: "O she doth teach the torches to burn bright!
It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night
As a rich jewel in an Ethiop's ear –
Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear!
So shows a snowy dove trooping with crows
As yonder lady o'er her fellows shows."

Which are the Arabica beans and which are the mere Robusta? Which is the real turtle soup and which is only the mock? It seems clear (to me) that with the Rosaline-related lines Shakespeare is toying with the clichéd conceits of the standard love poetry of the day. It's the mark of a great poet to willingly dumb down his own poetry purely for fun and effect.

Shakespeare lets us know even before Romeo himself does when the feelings he professes represent true love or puppy love. And would that we had such a barometer to measure the feelings of all those to whom we grant power over ourselves, whether our lovers or our country's leaders. Hard as it is to tell, alongside the question of whether we agree with someone we should also ask, does this person love us (or our country) above him or herself, as Romeo loves Juliet? Or is their love only an imagined pose, one that they themselves may believe in, as Romeo believes in his love for Rosaline, but that at heart is affected only because they like the way they feel when they're feeling that way. Mercutio suggests Romeo's desires are earthier than he realizes:

Mer: "If love be rough with you, be rough with love;
Prick love for pricking, and you beat love down."

Bardseye disagrees with John McCain on most issues, but feels that, egocentric as he may be, he still places our country before himself. The same goes for President Bush and Rudy Giuliani among Republicans and John Lieberman and Democratic '08 contender Russ Feingold among Democrats.

I would think that each of these Americans would surrender their personal ambitions to advance the country in their preferred direction – an operational definition of love of country. (Bardseye is not so sure that Hillary Clinton would surrender her ambitions in exchange for moving the country in her direction. And for those who disagree, bardseye has an additional question to ask: Which direction is that?)

Anyhoo, as a touchstone for the sacrifice we should ask of those we entrust with power over ourselves, whether as leaders or lovers, here is the sacrifice Juliet offers to remain faithful to Romeo, and to avoid marrying Paris, the man pressed on her by her parents:

Jul: "O, bid me leap, rather than marry Paris,
From off the battlements of any tower,
Or walk in thievish ways, or bid me lurk
Where serpents are; chain me with roaring bears,
Or hide me nightly in a charnel house,
O'ercovered quite with dead men's rattling bones,
With reeky shanks and yellow chopless skulls;
Or hide me with a dead man in his tomb –
Things that, to hear them told, have made me tremble –
And I will do it without fear or doubt,
To live an unstained wife to my sweet love."

Juliet's speech reminds Bardseye of the response he received from a number of the young women he made bold to ask out in high school. Sure, Jeremy, I'll go out with you – just as soon as I jump off of this battlement….

Hope you enjoyed!

Monday, December 26, 2005

Benvolio Deciphered


In Act I of Romeo and Juliet, the Montagues are worried about their son. They ask his friend Benvolio what he knows about Romeo:

"Madam, an hour before the worshiped sun
Peered forth the golden window of the east,
A troubled mind drave me to walk abroad,
Where, underneath the grove of sycamore
That westward rooteth from this city's side,
So early walking did I see your son.
Towards him I made, but he was ware of me
And stole into the covert of the wood,
I measuring his affections by my own,
Which then most sought where most might not be found,
Being one too many by my weary self,
Pursued my humor, not pursuing his,
And gladly shunned who gladly fled from me."

Poetry of this level today can distract from one's usual practice of posing hallucinatory Shakespearean parallels. So I won't compare Romeo's avoidance of Benvolio to Senator Clinton's avoidance of a clear position on withdrawal of American troops from Iraq. Instead, bardseye will invite bardseye viewers to the bardseye classroom to decipher Benvolio:

We will start right in at line two, which has a word missing. 'Peered forth the golden window of the east.' Shakespeare left a word out to make the line scan (ten syllables; weak and then strong; duh DUM duh DUM duh DUM duh DUM duh DUM). Name that missing word! Naomi?

"I dunno"

'Peered forth the golden window of the east.' Hint: the missing word is between "forth" and "the." Sam?


Yes! Say it with confidence, Sam! Peered forth from the golden window. Now do you understand that line better? I will take your silence for assent. The window is golden because something is rising in the east. Not a soufflé but – Anyone? It bringeth the dawn? It's yellow? Round? Really hot? I know you're messing with me. Fine. The sun.

Moving right along. Drave, as in 'a troubled mind drave Benvolio,' is an antique spelling of a word you already know. Anyone? No one? Whose parents drave them to school this morning?

"Ah. Drove."

Correct. Good.

"Why'd he make this stuff so complicated, anyway?"

Poetry, Jethro, by definition involves complication, just as plain speech involves simplicity. Why did they add the three-point line in basketball? An increased reward follows an increased challenge - .

"They added the three-point line? There used to not be one?"

Yes. Let's proceed. Apply yourselves to the text. Pretend it is an opposing lineman, those of you who are on our benighted football team.

"What's benighted mean?"

What is our team's record?

"Zero and five."

That's benighted. Now Benvolio's troubled mind drave him to walk abroad. Today abroad means overseas but obviously Benvolio is using it differently, so ask what related meaning might it have.


Good, Jethro! Around and about. Next line: 'But he was ware of me and stole into the covert of the wood.' What does 'ware' probably mean?

"Put clothes on?"

Incorrect, James, but allow me to compliment you on a fine touchdown last weekend.


Suzie that is correct.

"Teacher's pet."

I heard that. Covert – as in covert operations – means what? Anyone? I'll give you a cookie.


Good. Shakespeare uses it as a noun, though, which we no longer do, but so what? The meaning is clear enough. Approach the Bard with a little flexibility and much of the strangeness will yield to you.

Next we have a beautiful line. 'Measuring his affections by my own.' Anyone ever do that? You are in a solitary mood, you are experiencing adolescent angst. You are Benvolio and Romeo's age, after all. You have slapped on a pair of those protective Beanpod headphones -


Whatever. I mean thank you. You have slapped them on your ears and you have pulled a sweatshirt hood over your eyes. You see a friend doing the same. Are you going to walk over and say hi to your friend? Anyone?


Correct. Just like Benvolio, you have measured his or her affections by your own. Next we have:

- 'Which then most sought where most might not be found.'

What's doing the seeking? Look to the prior line. OK, I'll tell you this one. Benvolio's affections – 'my own' – are seeking the place where they might not be found. I admit that one's hard.

He then says he is 'one too many by my weary self.' He's bad company even to himself. He so wants to be alone that he'd prefer to leave even himself behind.


I agree. Next is: 'Pursued my humor, not pursuing his.'

Humor means mood. And the subject of 'pursued my humor' is the 'I' from three lines back. The result: I pursued my solitary mood by not pursuing Romeo in his solitary mood. Got it? Now in this last line: - 'And gladly shunned who gladly fled from me.' – there's a missing word. What's missing?

"Him! – Gladly shunned him who gladly fled from me."

Excellent, Ralph! It's 'he,' actually, but let's not quibble. You got the idea. Suzie, I see your hand is raised.

"I translated the whole thing into normal English, Mr. A."

Did you?

"Yeah, like this:

'Mrs. Montague, an hour before dawn I had a
troubled mind so I took a walk in the woods
by those sycamores that run from the western
side of the city. There was Romeo! I walked
toward him but he knew I was there and he
snuck behind some shrubbery. I figured his
feelings were similar to mine, and since I was
seeking a place where I would not be found
(even by myself I felt like one too many), I
avoided him just like he avoided me.'"

Very interesting, Suzie.

"Why couldn't he just write it like that?"

"Yeah!" (multiple students)

A useful question. Allow me to explain. If you take time to reread Benvolio's speech, you will see that -,

(The bell rings).

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Shakespeare and Judaism


Shakespeare disdained Jews and Judaism. This is a painful thing for a Jewish lover of Shakespeare to acknowledge, but the evidence is pretty conclusive. Beyond the numerous dismissive caricatures of Jews – generally as money-grubbing – that are scattered throughout the plays, there is the glaring example of Shylock, the Merchant of Venice. In creating this character, Shakespeare was responding to Marlowe's The Jew of Malta, an even more anti-Semitic play. But aside from a few moments of humanity that he cannot resist giving Shylock, Shakespeare's attitude toward him is hostile. Shakespeare has Shylock's love of money compete even with his love of his own daughter Jessica, nor is Jessica herself a happy camper:

Jes: "I am sorry thou wilt leave my father so.
Our house is hell…".

Moreover, Jessica cannot wait not only to marry the non-Jewish Lorenzo but to annihilate her Jewish identity:

Jes: "Alack, what heinous sin is it in me
To be ashamed to be my father's child!
But though I am a daughter to his blood,
I am not to his manners. O Lorenzo,
If thou keep promise, I shall end this strife,
Become a Christian and thy loving wife."

I could go on, but there's little point. Shylock's bargain with Antonio, central to the play, requires Antonio to surrender a pound of his own flesh if he cannot repay Shylock's loan. The bargain can be read as an inversion of the Catholic invocation of Jesus' flesh as the incarnation of G-d's spirit. "Hoc est corpus meum," ("This is my body") says Jesus. Shakespeare has Shylock convert this sublime parallel to an equation between not flesh and spirit, but flesh and money. The degradation is complete.

So what's a Jewish Shakespeare lover to do? Well, after giving the matter a quarter century of thought, Bardseye would like to jot down a few preliminary observations that may someday lead to an opinion.

Shakespeare loved England. He saw it as the premier expression of Western civilization. Ten of his 37 plays are English history plays, including an eight-play series. Their overriding theme is legitimacy; taken together they read like an updated version of Genesis and Exodus, the working out of which king or claimant for the throne reflecting the handing down of the Blessing from one Patriarch to the next.

When Shakespeare turns his attention to other cultures, he does so to absorb into his beloved England the best of what he sees in them or to warn England about what is worst in them. He criticizes Calvinism in the Vienna-based Measure for Measure, applauds the openness of Venice to outside talent in Othello but then criticizes Venetian commercialism in Merchant of Venice, applauds Italian sensuality and romantic love, with reservations, in Romeo and Juliet and As You Like It and applauds the nobility of the ancient world in Julius Caesar.

But when Shakespeare turned his eye to Judaism, he suspended his Borg-like campaign. In Judaism he saw a set of ideas that he had no interest in incorporating. Quite the contrary.

Judaism uses the Torah itself as a legal code. Its divine origin thereby places a natural limit on royal and other governmental power. Shakespeare was a divine right of kings monarchist whose only quibble was over which monarch should govern.

In Judaism G-d makes a contract with us in the Torah; our moral progress is our side of the agreement; His favor is the other. Shakespeare prefers the Greco-Roman view of humans as surrounded by an arbitrary fate, with only our own virtues to draw on. Shakespeare's humanity is so great that we rarely notice his scant attention to religious – even Christian – motivation.

The central story of the Jewish liberation from Egyptian bondage, with its implications for human freedom and equality, and the central role of our relationship to G-d in that liberation, are not to Shakespeare's taste either. The common people, when they appear in the plays, are seen as unruly, unreliable and in need of governance from above. In the Torah commoners also require guidance from above. But "above" for Shakespeare means noble, not divine.

Shakespeare is thus no friend of progress in human affairs, either moral or material. It's true that he is happy to elevate women, but only their humanity; not their station. Beyond that it's nobles up here; commoners down there.

And a key concept that is corrosive of this static vision of Shakespeare's is commerce, which over time upends the relationships between the classes. Since Jews in the preceding Middle Ages had been exempted from usury laws, a small but significant number had been active in England (in that bygone time) as moneylenders. Their work assisted the commoners to achieve prosperity and gain leverage over Shakespeare's beloved nobility.

But Jews had been nominally banished from England by Edward I hundreds of years before, and while a few did live in London in Shakespeare's day, usury, today known as banking, had long since been taken over by Christians. Shakespeare was therefore retailing a continental European prejudice to an English audience in the face of contradictory facts. Why?

Because the progress and change-oriented vision of Jewish civilization was too large a bite for Shakespeare to swallow.

I prefer to take this as a back-handed compliment, which allows me to continue to insist on Shakespeare's central role. After all, Jewish values have been largely accepted by today's modern societies. You could even call advanced modern societies Judaocracies (the subject of a future post, I think). So we Jews can afford to be magnanimous and absorb Shakespeare in a way that he was unable to absorb us. And besides, even though he isn't interested in our progress, he is passionately devoted to our humanity.

You ask: How can you love someone who is so intrinsically flawed? I can only say that I have often asked my wife the same question - about myself.

She just shrugs.

Here's the fascinating post from hounds and halachah that inspired this bardseye post.

Here's a related link to the recommendable Israellycool.

And another from californiaconservative.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Iago, Morgan Freeman and Racism


In Othello, Iago is a battle-hardened soldier vying for promotion within the Venetian army. In the same way that Nissan's corporate board hired the non-Japanese Carl Ghosn to run their company, the city fathers have placed the Venetian army under the command of Othello, a Moor (meaning a dark-skinned North African). Othello chooses not Iago but Cassio as his lieutenant. Here's Cassio, as Iago describes him: (theoric means theory; togaed means toga-wearing; unless means except for):

Iago: "a fellow that never set a squadron in the field
Nor the division of a battle knows
More than a spinster – unless the bookish theoric,
Wherein the togaed counsels can propose
As masterly as he. Mere prattle, without practice
Is all his soldiership….".

Iago goes on to frame Cassio in a crime he didn't commit, to deceive Othello into thinking that his faithful Desdemona is adulterous, and to murder his own wife Emilia to keep his machinations secret. In the end, Iago is the only villain in Shakespeare whose punishment is torture. (On the other hand, Iago did have a point about the injustice of Cassio's promotion).

Anyway, bitter at being passed over, Iago learns that Othello has eloped with Desdemona, the daughter of Brabantio, a Venetian aristocrat. Iago rats Othello out, attempting to inflame Brabantio's anger with racist allusions:

Iago: "Even now, now, very now, an old black ram
Is tupping your white ewe. Arise, arise!"


Iago: "…Because we come to do you service and
you think we are ruffians, you'll have your daughter
covered by a Barbary horse; you'll have your nephews
neigh for you…".

All of this, of course, brings us to some comments made by the actor Morgan Freeman. When interviewed about Black History Month (which he opposes), Mr. Freeman suggested that the only way to get rid of racism is to "stop talking about it."

"I am going to stop calling you a white man
and I'm going to ask you to stop calling me
a black man."

Mr. Freeman's proposal, that we formally jettison the concept of race and just address each other as people, seems a bit revolutionary in the context of today's politics and social assumptions. But it is interesting to note that the Elizabethans would have had no trouble with it.

True, Brabantio assumes that Othello, because of his perceived ugliness, must have coerced Desdemona into marrying him. Brabantio shares the biases of the day about dark-skinned Moors, but to call those biases racism is to impose a modern way of thinking on a people who thought differently. There was knowledge in seafaring Elizabethan England of people of different skin colors, but there were no firm racial identities – just as there was knowledge of homosexual behavior but no concept of a homosexual identity.

As it turns out, Othello is able to win his new father-in-law Brabantio over with a speech describing how naturally and innocently his courtship of Desdemona was conducted:

Oth: "Her father loved me, oft invited me,
Still questioned me the story of my life
From year to year – the battles, sieges, fortunes
That I have passed.
I ran it through, even from my boyish days
To th' very moment that he bade me tell it,
Wherein I spoke of most disastrous chances,
Of moving accidents by flood and field,
Of hairbreadth scapes i' th' imminent deadly breach
Of being taken by the insolent foe
And sold to slavery, of my redemption thence,
And of the Cannibals that each other eat,
The Anthropophagi, and men whose heads
Do grow beneath their shoulders. These things to hear
Would Desdemona seriously incline;…".

Desdemona confirms Othello's account and Brabantio consents to the marriage. And to the audience it seems like we are headed to Morgan Freeman's ideal world. But a world free of racial categories is not a world that Iago can be comfortable in.

It is worth noting Iago's openly racist comments were made in the very first scene of the play, before the audience has met Othello. Bardseye imagines that the same Elizabethan audience that would howl with pleasure at the sight of a bear being torn to bits (bearbaiting was a favorite pastime of the day) would have howled with pleasure at these jokes as well. Othello is off-stage, after all, and Shakespeare waits for the laughter to subside before introducing him, at which time the Bard gives him speeches of such nobility and poetic strength that the same audience would find its recent laughter, directed at the same man, catching in its collective throat.

This is probably a backward projection of mine, an imposition of modern analysis onto a world where it does not apply. It may just be a coincidence of the plot that has Iago direct such viciousness against Othello a moment before he arrives on stage in all his gentle masculine majesty.

Each century finds in Shakespeare, through his humanity, answers to its own questions, questions that lay beyond Shakespeare's own day, in the undiscovered country of the future. Just as Mr. Freeman's description of a post-racist world may have pointed to the undiscovered country of our future. As for Mr. Freeman's imagined future, as Hamlet says in a somewhat different context:

"'Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished."

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Shakespeare v. Kanye West: Cage Match!


Today Bardseye begins what will be a regular, probably weekly series of comparisons of Shakespeare's prose to the song lyrics of our premier pop music composers. We will begin with who I am told is one of our premier rappers, a Mr. Kanye West.

While others may find more literary merit in such West songs as Addiction, Crack Music and Hey Momma, Bardseye has selected a work entitled Touch the Sky. For the novice, I believe this song will be among West's more accessible, or less inaccessible works. Let us begin:

Touch The Sky

Come up in the spot looking extra fly
For the day I die, I'mma touch the sky
Gotta testify, come up in the spot looking extra fly
For the day I die, I'mma touch the sky."

Let's credit Mr. West with a nice opening, as his verse expresses the hope that at his death he will feel his best (touch the sky) and look his best (extra fly). We see something similar, if a bit more sepia-toned, in a brief comment made by Claudio in Measure for Measure:

Cla: "If I must die,
I will encounter darkness as a bride,
And hug it in mine arms."

But enough of that old stuff. Let's return to Mr. West's more modern exuberance:

"Back when they thought pink polo's would hurt the Roc,
Before Cam got the shit to pop, the doors was closed.
I felt like Bad Boy's street team, I couldn't work the locks.
Now let's go.
Take 'em back to the plan...
Me and my momma hopped in the U-Haul van.
Any pessimists I ain't talked to them,
Plus, I ain't have no phone in my apartment.
Let's take 'em back to the club."

The reader is at first struck by the numerous obscure textual references (shit to pop; Bad Boy's street team, etc.) that only a thorough grounding in rap culture would allow him or her to decipher. Presumably for the experienced listener, such references serve as a reward for one's dedicated viewing of MTV and related shows, and the consumption of relevant check-out counter publications.

In any event, West's theme is nostalgia for a simpler time, a time "back when they though pink polo's would hurt the Roc," etc. Let's see what the Bard does with the same material:

"When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear Time's waste."

- Sonnet #30 Or:

"……….O setting sun
As in thy red rays thou dost sink to night,
So in his red blood Cassius' day is set.
The sun of Rome is set. Our day is gone;
Clouds, dews, and dangers come; our deeds are done."

- Titinius, in Julius Caesar (V.iii.63)

Trouble deciding (between West and Shakespeare)? Six in one; a half dozen in the other? When my wife recently had a similar problem in selecting a pair of boots, I gave the obvious advice - take your time; try them all on for size. And so let's do the same, as we delve back into Mr. West's imaginative universe for the next portion of Touch the Sky:

"Least about an hour I would stand on line,
I just wanted to dance.
I went to Jacob an hour after I got my advance.
I just wanted to shine.Jay's favorite line:
"Dog, in due time"
Now he look at me, like "Damn, dog, you where I am"
A hip hop legend.
I think I died in an accident, cause this must be heaven."

West has advanced to the theme of rewarded ambition, and gratitude to the gods for one's success. Fertile poetic ground. Here's the Bard's version:

"Lowliness is young ambition's ladder,
Whereto the climber upward turns his face;
But when he once attains the upmost round,
He then unto the ladder turns his back,
Looks in the clouds, scorning the base degrees
By which he did ascend."

- Julius Caesar, (II,i,22)

There remains little for Bardseye to offer except to note that Mr. West's art is clearly not intended for a general audience but for a coterie of the initiated. And as a result, four hundred years seem to have separated us less from Shakespeare than has an odd cultural gap separated us from Mr. West and his audience.

Hope you enjoyed!

Here's a link to the always recommendable basil's blog.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Othello and Homosexuality


Each of Shakespeare's great tragedies has a different claim on our affections. We like Hamlet, both the man and the play, even though almost everybody in it dies in a fifth act orgy of blood. Still, underneath the story, something of value is being achieved. Hamlet is enacting a tragedy and Horatio is witnessing it, and he is charged by Hamlet at the end with publishing it to the world for our reflection and remembrance. Plus these two men love each other, and that love at least endures. And so against all odds, audiences feel affection.

By contrast, no one feels affection for King Lear (the play, that is). It's more like fear. Because in Lear, not even love endures.

By more contrast, everybody likes Macbeth (again, the play). Why? Well, because it has witches. And instead of a good but flawed guy getting it in the end, a fairly bad guy and his hideous wife get it in the end. Plus it has witches.

But what do we think, or rather feel, about Othello? It's always harder to relate to a foreigner, a man with no real friends (even Macbeth has Banquo until he kills him; Lear has his fool; Hamlet Horatio). But Othello is alone, a stranger in a strange land, fighting the Venetians' battles for them (he's hired by the prosperous city-state to lead its military). And as for affection, he can neither understand Venice's men, nor be understood by them, well enough to sustain a true friendship.

Still, there's always sexual desire. And yes, the word homosexuality is in this post's title. I'm getting there.

Here's part of Othello's magnificent Act I description of his inadvertent courtship of Desdemona:

Oth: "…My story being done,
She gave me for my pains a world of sighs.
She swore, in faith, 'twas strange, 'twas passing strange
'Twas pitiful, 'twas wondrous pitiful.
She wished she had not heard it, yet she wished
That heaven had made her such a man. She thanked me,
And bade me, if I had a friend that loved her,
I should but teach him how to tell my story,
And that would woo her. Upon this hint I spake.
She loved me for the dangers I had passed,
And I loved her that she did pity them.
This only is the witchcraft I have used.
Here comes the lady. Let her witness it."

Clearly Othello was more sought after than seeking, and some critics (those with too much time on their hands, I think) have suggested that this indicates a latent same-sex orientation. But if you really want latent gay impulses, you need look no further than Iago's weird fantasy in Act III scene iii, concocted as part of his campaign to sow suspicion in Othello's mind:

Iago: "…I lay with Cassio lately….
In sleep I heard him say, "Sweet Desdemona,
Let us be wary, let us hide our loves!"
And then, sir, would he grip and wring my hand,
Cry "O sweet creature!", then kiss me hard,
As if he plucked up kisses by the roots
That grew upon my lips; then laid his leg
Over my thigh, and sighed, and kissed, and then
Cried, "Cursed fate that gave thee to the Moor!"

Because Iago and Cassio are both soldiers, Iago's "I lay with Cassio lately" refers on the surface to sleeping in the barracks. But look how it is phrased. And then there's Cassio's somnolent deep kissing of Iago, complete with that overly thrilling phrase, " plucked up…by their roots," and the laying of Cassio's thigh over Iago's. For heaven's sake, Iago, why didn't you just wake the guy up?

Now, since all of this is a lie, and since any number of other lies would have done as well to foster Othello's suspicion, it's reasonable to speculate on Iago's impulses. Especially since there's other evidence. Iago couldn't be colder to his own wife Emilia. And Shakespeare must give Iago a hetero sidekick, Roderigo, to express desire and illicit intentions toward Desdemona, since Iago has none to muster.

Now, if there is any profitable point to these speculations, it lies in noticing that if Iago has any of what we today call homosexual desire, he is not conscious of it. How could he be, when the word homosexuality was itself not even coined until the mid-1800's? The practice existed of course, but not the concept of a related identity. With or without such urges, a man expected himself to marry. A woman.

Shakespeare, as always focusing on the human dimension, shows the effect of such desires as they work on a man who has never acknowledged them. A man whose mind apparently worked hard not to:

IAGO: "Virtue? A fig! 'Tis in ourselves that
we are thus or thus. Our bodies are our gardens,
to the which our wills are gardeners; so that if
we will plant nettles or sow lettuce, set hyssop
and weep up thyme, supply it with one gender
of herbs or distract it with many, either to have
it sterile with idleness or manured with industry –
why, the power and corrigible authority of this
lies in our wills. If the beam of our lives had not
one scale of reason to poise another of sensuality,
the blood and baseness of our natures would
conduct us to most preposterous conclusions….".

It may not be possible to know if Shakespeare would have been pro or anti-gay marriage, or hate crimes legislation, or don’t-ask-don't-tell. But he did appear to dramatize in Othello the painful, tragic consequences of a policy of don't-ask-don't-tell-yourself.

Here a recommended post from the always recommendable Malcontent.

Measure for Measure and the Patriot Act


In Measure for Measure, the Duke of Vienna, after a period of lax rule leading to a decline in public morals, has handed over authority to the excessively rigid Angelo. But Angelo, though upright in his public demeanor, is secretly lusting after Isabella. With Isabella's brother Claudio in prison under a sentence of death that only Angelo can commute, Angelo has just the leverage he needs to blackmail Isabella into sleeping with him.

Isa: "My brother did love Juliet,
And you tell me that he shall die for 't."

Ang: "He shall not, Isabel, if you give me love."

Isa: "I know your virtue hath a license in 't,
Which seems a little fouler than it is
To pluck on others."

Ang: "Believe me…my words express my purpose."

This leads to the famous prison scene of Act III scene II, where Claudio, weakening at the thought of death, beseeches his sister to surrender her virtue in exchange for his life, and about which Bardseye has already offered a view of in this post (remember to read ribbed as rib-bed - it's the Elizabethan way!):

Isa: "What says my brother?"

Cla: "Death is a fearful thing."

Isa: "And shamed life a hateful."

Cla: "Ay, but to die, and go we know not where,
To lie in cold obstruction and to rot,
This sensible warm motion to become
A kneaded clod, and the delighted spirit
To bathe in fiery floods, or to reside
In thrilling region of thick-ribbed ice,
To be imprisoned in the viewless winds
And blown with restless violence round about
The pendent world, …".

Isa: "Alas! Alas!

Cla: "Sweet sister, let me live;"

Claudio lays it on thick there for his sister, but then he's motivated. Bardseye's viewers who don't already know can today be informed that the Duke himself was listening in on Isabella and Claudio's family squabble. Mistrustful of Angelo, the Duke in fact never left Vienna. He assumed instead a friar's habit and secretly wandered the backstreets of his own city, learning at first hand the nature of the people he governed.

Under the expanded powers of the Patriot Act, the FBI and NSA (National Security Council for our non-American readers) have for the last four years been doing much the same. And in our modern recasting we will have Angelo stand in for an Al Qaida cell member, whose public face of rectitude, like Angelo's, belies his nefarious subterranean plans. Isabella's virtue will stand for something like the Brooklyn or Golden Gate Bridge, or the Sears Tower, or the Statue of Liberty or the White House. Or maybe just a planeload of people.

Duke: "Son, I have overheard what hath passed
between you and your sister."

Still undercover as a friar, the NSA spymaster Duke fits Isabella with a wire and sends her off to meet with the Al Qaida operative Angelo. She is to entrap him by pretending to agree to his terms, and set a time and place for their illicit assignation. But at that final meeting, the NSA/Duke send not Isabella but Mariana, a woman once loved by Angelo/Al Qaida but spurned when he discovered she had no useful intelligence for him; that is, when she lost her dowry.

Duke: "Haste you speedily to Angelo. If for
this night he entreat you to his bed, give him
promise of satisfaction. I will presently to
saint Luke's; there, at the moated grange,
resides this dejected Mariana. At that place
call upon me…".

The most dedicated conservatives and liberals probably share a sense of mixed feelings in their attitude toward the furtive Angelos of our intelligence agencies. On the right, the civil rights infringements of Waco and Ruby Ridge and Elian Gonzalez draw conservative ire in peacetime, but those same conservatives rally around the agencies in times of war. The left, though, never seems to rally around our intelligence agencies at all.

Well, it's wartime, and bardseye will rally around. I will do so by recalling that the FBI and NSA always lesser noted successes include a stream of thwarted terrorist attempts, including of the planned bombing of New York Bridge and Washington, D.C. trains by a Mr. Iyman Faris, whose plot was discovered by information gained through Patriot Act authority.

Liberals note that Lincoln suspended the right of habeas corpus during the Civil War. Conservatives note that habeas corpus was reinstituted and is alive and well. Liberals point to the internment of over 100,000 Japanese-Americans during WWII. Conservatives can justly point to today's very limited detention of only proven enemy combatants, and the legal respect accorded to law-abiding Arab-Americans, as proof of progress in civil rights protection in wartime.

In all this it's well to remember who the real culprit is. In Measure for Measure the Duke's surveillance is only necessary because of Angelo. It all really is Angelo's; that is to say Al Qaida's, fault.

P.S. Here a related post from the always recommendable Politicalteen.

And here's one from the estimable Joe's cafe.

And here's one from the renowned Michelle Malkin.

And here's one from the leftcoast rightist California Conservative.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Romeo and Juliet and Pornography


The only scene in Shakespeare's plays that is filthier than the opening scene of Othello is the opening scene of Romeo and Juliet. As you will recall, the play opens when underlings from each of the feuding families run across each other in a public street. Samson and Gregory, of the Capulets, announce their intention to endure no Montague insults:

Sam: "A dog of that house shall move me
to stand. I will take the wall of any man
or maid of the Montagues."

The renaissance took place in cities of medieval construction, with narrow streets, and Verona, where the play begins, is one of these. When people passed each other, the person of lesser social rank would hop politely into the gutter, allowing the more noble person to pass along the wall. Shakespeare uses this as the basis for a flare-up of Capulet/Montague tensions.

So when Samson says he will "take the wall" of any of the Montagues, he means he will force that Montague into the gutter. But recall that he specifically says he will not take the wall "of any man or maid." Why add "maid?"

I'm afraid the answer is because sex with prostitutes in that day was performed against a wall.

During my teaching career, when I taught Romeo and Juliet to ninth graders, I explained only the social rank aspect of "taking the wall," and I relied on the students not to inquire further - nor did they disappoint me. But ask yourself how you would as a teacher of ninth graders handle the next part of Act I Scene I:

Sam: "…When I have fought with the men,
I will be civil with the maids. I will cut off
their heads."

Greg: "The heads of the maids?"

Sam: "Ay, the heads of the maids, or their
maidenheads. Take it in what sense thou wilt."

Greg: "They must take it in sense that feel it.

"Sam: "Me they shall feel while I am able to
stand, and 'tis know I am a pretty piece of flesh."

Greg: "….Draw they tool. Here comes of the
house of the Montagues."

Sam: "My naked weapon is out. Quarrel, I will
back thee."

Mr. Abrams, what's a maidenhead? And what's this "while I am able to stand" stuff? What's supposed to be standing? And what are all these tools and naked weapons?

Well, Suzie, a maidenhead is another word for what in Japanese is called the Shojomaku. And the rest of you raise interesting questions as well, and allow me to commend your inquisitive natures, but as I see the bell is approaching….

Actually, I skipped it, explaining to my charges that we were skipping over some dirty bits which they were free to read at home and research at their leisure, but that they would not be tested on. But my teacherly problems with Romeo and Juliet didn't end there. Shakespeare hardly lets up after the first scene. Mercutio in particular has an exceptionally dirty mouth.

But Mr. Abrams (my students actually did ask me), if Shakespeare can get away with all this dirty stuff, how can you criticize Hollywood like you always do for doing the same thing?

Because, Suzie, unlike Hollywood, Shakespeare demonstrates a high moral and aesthetic purpose, and great humanity. The dirty bits are needed for contrast. They are the muddy reality out of which the improbable and impermanent flower of R&J's love will emerge. The audience is briefly reminded of how ugly the world can be, including in its sensuality, to better appreciate the worth of something as beautiful as this (fain means reluctantly):

Jul: "Thou knowest the mask of night is on my face.
Else would a maiden blush bepaint my cheek
For that which thou hast heard me speak tonight.
Fain would I dwell on form – fain, fain deny
What I have spoke, but farewell compliment!
Dost thou love me? I know thou wilt say "Ay,"
And I will take thy word. Yet if thou swear'st
Thou mayst prove false. At lovers' perjuries,
They say, Jove laughs. O gentle Romeo,
If thou dost love, pronounce it faithfully….".

Let Hollywood pronounce love faithfully as well, and we will forgive them the occasional sexual reference, though actual sex scenes are to my mind never essential in storytelling. Bardseye is a proud prude, and holds that anything that happens in bed that needs to be described can be referred to without being shown.

Try naming those human cultures, across all time periods, where sex has not been private. I can think of only two:

Ancient Rome in decline, and ours.

Here's a related post from the always recommendable Generation Why.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Sonnet #76 and Marijuana


Why is my verse so barren of new pride?
So far from variation or quick change?
Why with the time do I not glance aside
To newfound methods and to compounds strange?

Compounds strange. Gee - doesn't that sounds like chemical compounds, or drugs! Advocates of increased drug use, or decreased drug illegality, or increased de-illegality, have seized on this phrase and a few others in Shakespeare in order to enlist the Bard in their support. Similar advocates also hyped the unearthing of old pipes that contained marijuana and cocaine residue and that were found in the vicinity of Stratford-on-Avon, the home Shakespeare almost never lived in. Never mind that the pipes (pipes that are smoked) could not be dated within an accuracy of more than two hundred years.

Bardseye comes more to bury this feverish speculation than to praise it. But the issue does provide an opportunity to read Shakespeare as historical detectives rather than imbibers of literature.

While hemp, derived from the marijuana plant, was known at the time and grown for its fiber, people hadn't caught on to the idea of smoking it. Just as people didn't immediately catch on to the idea of smoking cotton. Let's continue with sonnet #76:

Why write I still all one, ever the same,
And keep invention in a noted weed,
That every word doth almost tell my name,
Showing their birth and where they did proceed?

Actually, the pot advocates have grasped onto the phrase "noted weed" with even greater joy than "compounds strange," and have assigned Sonnet 76 as Shakespeare's drug sonnet as a result. But in both cases, they are guilty of assigning today's meaning to the day before yesterday's language. The most likely etymology – or word history – of "weed" in this context is suit or clothing, as in widow's weeds, usually plural but not always, and indeed here the plural case would destroy the rhyme.

Moreover, this meaning fits the overall meaning of the stanza, which is a complaint that the writer is never able to vary his writing style, which is so recognizable that it betrays his authorship. (The first stanza means much the same, with the "compounds strange" most likely referring to his poetic phrases being compounded of different words). That's the meaning that fits, while the drug-related meaning is the meaning that doesn't fit.

If readers wish to puzzle over hidden meanings, let them wonder at the writer's hinted desire to conceal his identity, which he frets is betrayed by his pen. That seems a more likely subtext of the poem. But the far more fertile subject of Shakespeare's identity is a matter bardseye will leave for another day.

Pot promoters must be a little dismayed, and pot demonizers delighted, at the lack of persuasive citations in Shakespeare relating to drug use. In A Midsummer's Night Dream Oberon sprinkles the pollen from a magic flower onto Titania's sleeping eyelids, and when she awakens, she falls in love with Bottom, a mere mortal, whom she will love even when a further spell transforms him into an ass, in the etymological sense of a donkey. A potion will cast Juliet into a temporary coma, and a duke is subjected to a sleeping spell by Ariel in the Tempest.

And Bardseye welcomes other examples from advanced Bard-readers.

But when it comes to mood alteration, Shakespeare's preferred agent is love, or despair, or moral outrage or any number of actual states, as opposed to fake ones.

I've left alcohol out of this discussion, since it is so wedded to our and Shakespeare's civilization as to be taken for granted as a part of it. Its presence in Shakespeare runs from the meeting between Cassius and Brutus in Act III of Julius Caesar, where its use reflects the decadence of their rebellion, to the exuberant drinking of Sir Toby Belch in Twelfth Night and of Falstaff in every play he's in. But all of these drinkers are ultimately shown as dissolute, and Shakespeare's final verdict on drinking is a dismissive one.

Speaking of compounds strange, those who want a new drug will be pleased to learn that a new compound strange has been developed that replicates the effect that marijuana has on the brain.

It's been developed a bit too late for me. I've found my drug. It's what I'm blogging about.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Macbeth and Death Row


Lady Macduff's situation is precarious. Her husband, judging Macbeth to be the murderer of King Duncan and therefore illegitimate as Duncan's successor, has fled the land Macbeth now rules. Macduff plans to champion the claim to the Scottish crown of Malcolm, son of Duncan (and thanks to Jad of ShakespeareHigh for a correction as to whose son Malcolm was). But a fat lot of good this does Macduff's wife, whom Macduff was forced to abandon in the family castle (wants means lacks):

L McD: "Wisdom? To leave his wife, to leave his babes,
His mansion, and his titles in a place
From whence himself does fly? He loves us not,
He wants the natural touch; for the poor wren,
The most diminutive of birds, will fight,
Her young ones in her nest, against the owl.
All is the fear and nothing is the love…".

Without the protection of her husband, specifically of his sword and the swords of the men in his retinue, Lady Macduff is defenseless. Naturally, Macbeth chooses this opportunity to overcompensate for his usual queasiness:

Macbeth: "…From this moment
The very firstlings of my heart shall be
The firstlings of my hand. And even now,
To crown my thoughts with acts, be it thought and done:
The castle of Macduff I will surprise,
Seize upon Fife, give to th' edge o' the sword
His wife, his babes, and all unfortunate souls
That trace him in his line…".

There sits on death row in Mississippi a man named Cory Maye. Mr. Maye was lying asleep when police officers, mistakenly executing a "no-knock" search warrant on the wrong residence, burst into his home. Awakening suddenly to see men bursting into his home, Mr. Maye shot and killed one of them.

A tragicomedy of further injustices, that probably included the planting of evidence as suggested by the revision of an initial police report, followed for Mr. Maye, leading in the end to his placement on death row. Our quiz question for the day: Why have America's media organs trumpeted the cause of a now deceased Tookie Williams, murderer of four and founder of the murderous Crips gang, while Mr. Maye's name remains nearly unknown? The answer is to follow. Meanwhile, let's return to Lady Macduff:

- Enter Murderers

Lady MacD: "What are these faces?

1st Mur: "Where is your husband?

Lady MacD: "I hope in no place so unsanctified
Where such as thou mayst find him."

1st Mur: "He's a traitor."

Son: "Thou liest, thou shag-haired villain!"

1st Mur: "What, you egg?" (He stabs him.)
Young fry of treachery!

Son: "He hath killed me, Mother.
Run away, I pray you!"

- Exit Lady Macduff crying "Murder!" followed
By the Murderers with the Son's body

Now if Lady Macduff had had a nice shiny gun in a drawer in her bedside table, she and her son would have survived. And this circumstance provides the answer to our quiz question. Because Mr. Maye used a gun to defend himself from a perceived attack, his story seems to argue against gun control restrictions. But Hollywood and the major news media favor gun control.

That's why you haven't heard of Mr. Maye.

Mr. Maye's real predicament may not be that he is on death row, but that, being there, he enjoys less media sympathy than did the deceased cold-blooded killer Tookie Williams.

And by the way, although we all know Mr. Williams' name very well, raise your hand if you have read or heard the names of his victims. They are:

Tsai-Shai Yang
Yen-I Yang
Ye-Chen Lin
Albert Owens

Let them be remembered. And may they rest in peace.

Here's a related post from the always recommendable TheAgitator.

A Japanese Comedy of Errors


The Comedy of Errors features two sets of identical twin brothers. One set are both named Antipholus, and the other set, who are servants to the first, are both named Dromio. Implausible? It wouldn't be to the retired heavyweight champion of the world and current barbecue grill salesman George Foreman, who named all five or so of his sons George.

The two Antipholuses are the sons of Aegeon, a merchant from Syracuse (we are in ancient Greece, even though half the characters have renaissance Italian names, reflecting either pure insouciance or pure laziness on Shakespeare's part). Anyhow, one Antipholus and one servant Dromio are separated from Aegeon and the other Antipholus and Dromio when they drift away during a storm on the Mediterranean (you may want to read obscured as obscure-ed. It's more Shakespearean that way, and more fun).

Aeg: "A league from Epidamnum had we sailed
Before the always wind-obeying deep
Gave any tragic instance of our harm.
But longer did we not retain much hope;
For what obscured light the heavens did grant
Did but convey unto our fearful minds
A doubtful warrant of immediate death…".

A three hour cruise. The lost pair land in Ephesus and establish a new life there. The other Antipholus, once he has grown up, leaves Syracuse to travel the world looking for his brother. Eventually he finds himself in Ephesus. And that's about where the play begins.

Of course what I'm really attempting to write about is the casting of Memoirs of a Geisha. Memoirs is the movie adaptation of a celebrated book that purports to reveal hidden dimensions of the world of the geisha, those Japanese consorts whose training and tradition date back to the Edo period, the formative era extending from the 1620s to the 1850s when Japan remained closed to the world. The cinematic puppeteers in Los Angeles decided to portray this quintessentially Japanese world by casting Chinese actors and actresses in the three lead roles, relegating the Japanese actors to the remaining minor parts. This has created a bit of a stir in Japan, and even in China.

In order to provide bardseye's view of the matter, we will return to Ephesus, where the Syracusan Antipholus is being mistaken by everyone for his brother. Even his brother's wife, thinking him to be her husband, welcomes him home for dinner, where he duly falls in love with her sister, Luciana. He addresses Luciana, but he could as easily be speaking for the Chinese actors in Memoirs of a Geisha as they address their American director (Rob Marshall), the man who has asked them to incarnate the heart and soul of a treasured Japanese tradition:

S. Ant.: "Teach me, dear creature, how to think and speak;
Lay open to my earthy-gross conceit,
Smothered in errors, feeble, shallow, weak,
The folded meaning of your words' deceit.
Against my soul's pure truth why labor you
To make it wander in an unknown field?
Are you a god? Would you create me new?
Transform me then, and to your power I'll yield."

Can an American director teach Chinese actors how to think and speak as Japanese members of a reclusive ancient courtesan tradition? Why does Mr. Marshall labor against their souls' pure truth, to make them wander in an unknown field?

In the 1960's it was reasonable to introduce theretofore unknown Japanese culture to the West through such devices as the Beni Hana restaurant chain, which featured faux, not to say ersatz, Japanese chefs performing acrobatic feats at the customers' tables with their food. In the context of the times, this was practically diplomatic. But forty years have passed since then and one would think that the times had changed. Here the Syracusan Antipholus reflects on his plight, as must the Chinese actors (with the sister standing in for Marshall and Hollywood), on this directorial comedy of errors:

S. Ant.: "....But her fair sister,
Possessed with such a gentle sovereign grace,
Of such enchanting presence and discourse,
Hath almost made me traitor to myself.
But, lest myself be guilty to self-wrong,
I'll stop mine ears against the mermaid's song."

Hollywood of course dominates the global market for cinema, or more accurately the market for global cinema (India's Bollywood is nothing to sneeze at, but is as yet primarily for domestic consumption). But if US moviemakers are going to presume to present to the world the key cultural treasures of other nations, they owe to those nations a far greater sensibility, and greater sensitivity, than they so far seem willing or able to exhibit.

And by the way, are these really the same moviemaking celebrities who are decrying what they call a bullying, culturally arrogant American assertiveness in Iraq? Aren't they exhibiting exactly what they criticize?

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Bardseye's New Look!


Our regular readers will not fail to observe bardseye's new look. Credit for this superb Elizabethan makeover goes to Nilesh Patel, a web designer of unfailing energy, talent and technique and moreover (for myself), a fellow North Carolinian.

Readers with web needs who are impressed with Mr. Patel's work (and please note that he was tasked only with the new borders and was not asked – or not yet asked – to devise a full site redesign) may contact him at I recommend his services wholeheartedly.

Hamlet and Richard Prior


Hamlet, the doomed Prince of Denmark, provides the best requiem I can think of for a clown. By the time we get to Act V, scene 1, the gravedigger scene, Hamlet's fate is all but sealed. He is a known murderer, in disgrace, with only his royal blood saving him from the status of a fugitive. His own cruelty has driven mad his beloved Ophelia, whose madness has led to her drowning.

Hamlet only learns of her death when he and Horatio come upon a gravedigger busy at his craft. The grave he is digging, of course, is Ophelia's. Naturally, Shakespeare cannot resist the comic opportunities this presents (he even designates the gravedigger as a clown):

Ham: "What man dost thou dig it for?"

Cln: "For no man, sir."

Ham: "What woman, then?"

Cln: "For none, neither."

Ham: "Who is to be buried in't?"

Cln: "One that was a woman, sir, but,
rest her soul, she's dead."

Richard Prior died this week, one of America's great clowns. He was born in the Deep South in the 1940's, the son of a prostitute, and raised in, well, the sort of house that receives gentlemen callers who are hardly gentlemen. It was a childhood that could not really be replicated in later generations when, one way or another, Child Services or some other agency would have stepped in to sever the mother from the child.

Prior's humor looked human misery squarely in the face and chose to respond to it with laughter. In this he reminds us of Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, described here by Leonato:

Leo: "…She is never sad but when she
sleeps, and not ever sad then; for I have
heard my daughter say she hath often
dreamt of unhappiness and waked herself
with laughing."

But if Prior himself can be compared to Beatrice, a Shakespearean parallel for his humor requires a stroll on the dark side, and only Hamlet will do ("'a" means he; pocky means marked by smallpox; ere means before; scarce hold the laying means too decayed to hold together during burial):

Ham: "How long will a man lie in the earth
ere he rot?"

Cln: "faith, if 'a be not rotten before 'a die –
as we have many pocky corpses nowadays,
that will scarce hold the laying in – 'a will
last you some eight year or nine year.
A tanner will last you nine year.

Ham: "Why he more than another?"

Cln: "Why, sir, his hide is so tanned with his
trade that 'a will keep out water a great while,
and you water is a sore decayer of your
whoreson dead body. (He picks up a skull.)

Like only a handful of American comics; Jonathan Winters, Lily Tomlin, Robin Williams, (add your own favorites here) and the early careers of Whoopi Goldberg and Steve Martin, Prior's humor was revelatory, informing the awareness of a generation. The high genius of comedy is not often enough appreciated, but the scant number of irresistibly funny public personalities is a tribute to the rarefied atmosphere they breathe.

We aren't allowed to see Yorick, Hamlet's favorite comedian, on stage in his prime, what with Hamlet holding his skull in his hands. Still, it's clear that Hamlet, a great lover of performers (see Act II scene II), accorded Yorick the same respect and gratitude that we extend today to Prior (bore means borne, or carried; gorge is stomach; gibes and gambols means joking and jumping; were wont to means were likely to; to this favor...laugh at that means to this end she must come, and not even make-up will cover her skull once dead):

Ham: "(He takes the skull). Alas, poor Yorick!
I knew him, Horatio, a fellow of infinite jest,
of most excellent fancy. He hath bore me on his
back a thousand times, and now how abhorred
in my imagination it is! My gorge rises at it.
Here hung the lips I have kissed I know not how
oft. Where be your gibes now? Your gambols,
your songs, your flashes of merriment that were
wont to set the table on a roar? Not one now,
to mock your own grinning? Quite chopfallen?
Now get you to my lady's chamber, and tell her,
let her paint an inch thick, to this favor she must
come. Make her laugh at that."

Well, ok, Hamlet does take the occasion to express his despondency over how reduced Yorick is, and ultimately all of us will be, in death ("Not one now, to mock at your own grinning?"), and that is not necessarily the lesson we would all take from Richard Prior's ending. But it is to be recalled that Hamlet is sick at heart and in mind. And still we feel a greatness in Hamlet that lies in his ability to see clearly the terrible things that are happening to him, and their cost.

Come to think of it, the greatness we feel in Richard Prior consists of much the same.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Lear, Streisand and Jonah Goldberg


King Lear is old. He's so old he sneezes dust. He's older than Merv Griffen. He's so old – well, anyway, he's old. And moreover his judgment is not what it should be. His fool, far cannier than he, diagnoses his problem:

Fool: "If thou wert my fool, nuncle, I'd have
thee beaten for being old before thy time."

Lear: "How's that?"

Fool: "Thou shouldst not have been old till
thou hadst been wise."

Lear: "O let me not be mad, not mad, sweet
heaven! Keep me in temper; I would not be mad!"

In the midst of an otherwise comic exchange, Lear's sudden plea takes us up short. We are moved by Lear's awareness that he may be going mad, which, if I may get to the point, is so unlike what we face with Barbra Streisand.

Ms. Streisand's eminence as a chanteuse has entitled her to have a poorly written letter published in this week's Los Angeles Times. Given the recent plummeting of the Times' readership, Bardseye thought it would assist that publication in getting word of Ms. Streisand's letter out. To summarize: she decries the liberal Times' firing of liberal hack columnist Robert Sheer, and its (somewhat surprising) hiring of conservative columnist Jonah Goldberg:

Barbra: "…in firing Robert Sheer and putting
Jonah Goldberg in his place, the gamut of voices
has undeniably been diluted…".

If Barbra objects to Mr. Goldberg himself, and seeks a different conservative voice - a Goldberg Variation, Bardseye will make bold to say - that would at least be a principled position, and let her make it. Otherwise, and leaving aside the odd use of the word 'gamut,' which is not something that can be diluted, not even Lear's fool, or the true fool Lear, would believe what she has written.

But without descending further into the sad morass of this talented lady's mind, let's return to King Lear, as he announces his plans to abdicate in favor of his daughters, asking each of them to declare their feelings for him:

Lear: "Which of you shall we say doth love us most,
That we our largest bounty may extend...Goneril,
Our eldest born, speak first.

Gon: "Sir, I love you more than words can wield the matter,
Dearer than eyesight, space, and liberty,
Beyond what can be valued, rich or rare,
No less than life, with grace, health, beauty, honor,
As much as child e'er loved, or father found;
A love that makes breath poor and speech unable.
Beyond all manner of so much I love you."

Persuaded? You shouldn't be, since Goneril will later require Lear to reduce his retinue by half, plot against him, and tear out his friend the Earl of Gloucester's eyes. Lear moves on to his second daughter, Regan:

Lear: "….What says our second daughter,
Our dearest Regan, wife of Cornwall? Speak."

Reg: "I am made of that same mettle as my sister,
And prize me at her worth. In my true heart
I find she names my very deed of love;
Only she comes too short, that I profess
Myself an enemy to all other joys…".

Regan is laying it on thick. But Lear is lapping it up, just like the liberal readers of the Los Angeles Times each morning as they move from the left-slanting Gonerils of the paper's columnists to the left-slanting Regans of its reporters.

With the empathic powers granted her as an artist, Barbra understands the discomfort she and other privileged denizens of Los Angeles will endure if obliged to notice but ignore Mr. Goldberg's column once it is placed alongside the daughterly obedience of their usual writers. Indeed, what might happen if, letting curiosity get the better of them, they actually read him?

And so it is that Barbra and all her co-readers of the Times, find themselves confronted suddenly with the bracing contrary opinion of Cordelia, Lear's third daughter, I mean Jonah Goldberg, the Times' new columnist:

Lear: "…what can you say to draw
A third more opulent than your sisters? Speak,"

Cor: "Nothing, my lord.

Lear: "Nothing?"

Cor: "Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave
My heart into my mouth. I love your Majesty
According to my bond, no more nor less."

Lear: "How, how, Cordelia? Mend your speech a little,
Lest you may mar your fortunes."

And isn't that the current fate of conservative writers, who find their fortunes marred if they speak and write their minds in an era where the levers of power, the institutions of the media and academe, are controlled by the Lears of Liberalism?

Let more Cordelias speak more conservative truth to liberal power, until balance is restored and our republic is allowed to see its own reflection clearly and accurately at last.

A Sonnet, if you Wannit


My glass shall not persuade me I am old
So long as youth and thou are of one date;
But when in thee Time's furrows I behold,
Then look I death my days should expiate.

So begins Sonnet #22, today's text in our Shakespearean breviary (with glass meaning mirror and expiate meaning end). It is worth speculating whether Shakespeare would consent to rewrite some of these lines in an age of cosmetic surgery. Well no, it's not worth it. But have you had a look a Robert Redford lately? He looks like a young man who vaguely resembles Robert Redford, although he certainly does not look like a young Robert Redford. His glass shall not persuade him he is old, even as it persuades us he's vain and perhaps even a little lost.

In these first four lines Shakespeare is saying that he won't feel old until his presumably younger lover starts looking old. Flattery or insult? Or is it just true, that one's love for another seems to stop the clock, until you're reminded of its progress not by your own deterioration, but by hers, or his? A certain species of gallantry would insist on the reverse; that one's lover appears never to age. But that's not Shakespeare's approach.

And anyway, it's not as if he's saying he particularly cares whether he does start thinking of himself as old, or even near death ("Then look I death my days shall expiate" – with "look I" meaning foresee). He seems pretty matter-of-fact about his own looks and even his own end. Clearly we are far away from the sort of time-defying sensibility that has extended both Joan Rivers' youth and her career beyond their proper conclusions, or that has disfigured Michael Jackson's face to so ironically resemble his disfigured heart. No, Shakespeare's focus is elsewhere (Seemly raiment means well-suited clothing):

For all that beauty that doth cover thee
Is but the seemly raiment of my heart,
Which in thy breast doth live, as thine in me
How can I then be elder than thou art?

Now that's what I'm talking about. There's your thrilling and immortal love poetry. The faithful bardseyeviewer will recall examples of Shakespeare's lesser verse, presented in my "A Midsummer's Night Dream, Updated" post, as follows (it seems we'll be enjoying a little poetry tasting this evening):


"O Helen, goddess, nymph, perfect, divine!
To what, my love, shall I compare thine eyne?
Crystal is muddy. O, how ripe in show
Thy lips, those kissing cherries, tempting grow!
That pure congealed white, high Taurus' snow,
Fanned with the eastern wind, turns to a crow
When thou hold'st up thy hand…".

It seems clear to me at least that Shakespeare is, as the friends I met in Japan who were from England and New Zealand would say, taking the piss out of Demetrius by having him say those words. (It's ok, Shakespeare himself uses that word in Henry VI part II:

"I charge and command that, of the city's cost, the pissing-conduit run nothing but claret wine this first year of our reign….".)

My kind of king. Well, I seem to be digressing. So let's return to Sonnet 22 (chary means carefully):

O, therefore, love, be of thyself so wary
As I, not for myself, but for thee will,
Bearing thy heart, which I will keep so chary
As tender nurse her babe from faring ill.

Huh? You'll want to move that "will" in the second line, to read, "As I will, not for myself, but for thee." Better? Now move it back to enjoy the poem.

It's a simple enough idea that he's expressing; let's each take care of ourselves, monitor those triglycerides, absorb more anti-oxidants, take more coffee this year or less the next depending on the latest study, and all for each other's sake, not our own.

All English sonnets end with a couplet, and here's ours:

Presume not on thy heart when mine is slain;
Thou gav'st me thine, not to give back again.

Well, that's a bit mean, isn't it? After I die, I'm taking your heart with me, so don't look to get it back. It's possibly the reason this otherwise beautiful sonnet is not among the more famous. Plus he contradicts this idea elsewhere, in Sonnet #71 for example, which starts with:

"No longer mourn for me when I am dead…"

and ends with:

"But let your love even with my life decay."

Maybe his feelings grew a bit more generous and less possessive (as in possessive beyond the grave) in the interim. Who can say? In any case, either sentiment is recognizably human. And if you read the sonnets like a lawyer reading statutes, you're going to be forever on the outside with your faced pressed to the glass.

Anyway, I hope you've enjoyed, and here's #22 again, whole:

My glass shall not persuade me I am old
So long as youth and thou are of one date;
But when in thee Time's furrows I behold,
Then look I death my days should expiate.
For all that beauty that doth cover thee
Is but the seemly raiment of my heart,
Which in thy breast doth live, as thine in me
How can I then be elder than thou art?
O, therefore, love, be of thyself so wary
As I, not for myself, but for thee will,
Bearing thy heart, which I will keep so chary
As tender nurse her babe from faring ill.
Presume not on thy heart when mine is slain;
Thou gav'st me thine, not to give back again.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Mark Antony and Furtive Conservatives


Mark Antony has a little problem. His friend and dictator, Julius Caesar, Emperor of Rome, is lying dead in a pool of his own blood in the city marketplace. Caesar's pack of assassins, led of course by Brutus, is standing boldly beside the body. They know of Mark Antony's loyalty to Caesar, and of the loyalty of a portion of the Roman army to Mark Antony. In an earlier meeting, they debated whether to slaughter Antony in the street beside his friend:

Cassius: "…I think it is not meet
Mark Antony, so well beloved of Caesar,
Should outlive Caesar. We shall find of him
A shrewd contriver…"

Brutus: "Our course will seem too bloody, Caius Cassius,
To cut the head off and then hack the limbs,
Like wrath in death and envy afterwards;
For Antony is but a limb of Caesar.
Let's be sacrificers, but not butchers, Caius…"

Cassius: "Yet I fear him…".

Antony is alone and, of course, outnumbered when he confronts these traitors. One false move or unwelcome word and he will be cut down. Here's how he handles it:

Ant: "O mighty Caesar! Dost thou lie so low?
Are all thy conquests, glories, triumphs, spoils,
Shrunk to this little measure? Fare thee well, -
I know not, gentlemen, what you intend,
Who else must be let blood, who else is rank;
If I myself, there is no hour so fit…".

It's the standard Roman pose, though it's a pleasure to see it clothed in Shakespeare's language. After a bit more posturing – Brutus says not to worry, Mark, we done it fer Rome, you're as safe as a kitten in a crib - Antony gets to the point:

Ant: "Gentlemen all – alas, what shall I say?
My credit now stands on such slippery ground
That one of two bad ways you must conceit me,
Either a coward or a flatterer.
That I did love thee, Caesar, O, 'tis true!
If then thy spirit look upon us now,
To see thy Antony making his peace,
Shaking the bloody fingers of thy foes –
Most noble! – in the presence of thy corpse?
Had I as many eyes as thou hast wounds,
Weeping as fast as they stream forth thy blood,
It would become me better than to close
In terms of friendship with thine enemies…".

Apparently Mark Antony isn't the only person who has to walk a fine line between honor and (in this case social) suicide. The American Thinker has published the fascinating confession of a conservative suburban mother living in an overwhelmingly liberal community. The writer feels it necessary to conceal her views from her entire community, impelling her in turn to conceal her identity on her blog, where she is known only as bookwormroom. (Full disclosure: whoever bookwormroom may be, she and I maintain an occasional friendly correspondence) Antony speaks to himself and the audience (and for bloggers like Bookworm) once Brutus and the other liberals have left:

Ant: "O pardon me, thou bleeding piece of earth,
That I am meek and gentle with these butchers!
Thou art the ruins of the noblest man
That ever lived in the tide of times.
Woe to the hand that shed this costly blood!
Over thy wounds do I now prophesy -
Which, like dumb mouths, do ope their ruby lips
To beg the voice and utterance of my tongue -...".

"Over thy wounds." As over the wounds of hurt pride and battered citizenship do thousands of furtive conservatives "furiously blog" (in Book's phrase). And indeed, a telling piece of evidence supporting the idea that bookwormroom is far from alone in being alone, or rather that her predicament is far from unique, comes from some poll results she cites, showing that even in extravagantly liberal Beverly Hills, President Bush won 42% of the vote in 2004.

Moreover, Bush's support there more than doubled from the piddling 20% he won in 2000. Of course this doubling of Bush's secret Beverly Hills support took place after 9/11 struck fear in those liberals' hearts.

But my broader point is that it is unthinkable that when social conversations in Beverly Hills turn to the issues of the day, anything near 42% of the conversationalists announce their broadly Bush-approving views. And yet that's what the poll results proclaim.

P.S.: Here's the link for the warm-hearted and always recommendable bookwormroom.

And here's a related post from the estimable California Conservative.

And here's one from the always recommendable Cenfederate Yankee.

And here's a related post from the always worthwhile Generation Why?

Friday, December 09, 2005

A Midsummer's Night Dream, Updated


In A Midsummer's Night Dream, a love potion is being incompetently employed by Puck, with results that complicate the relationships between four mortals. Puck is the sprite-like servant of Oberon, an Olympian god (Error! Oberon is the "king of the fairies" and my thanks to Richard at lovinage for the correction), and the story is complicated enough without my explaining Oberon's cupidity in making Puck his Cupid. Here is the state of play among the mortals before Puck arrives:

Demetrius once courted Helena, before jilting her. Helena is still carrying a torch, and indeed carries it all the way into a forest in order to follow Demetrius, who has gone there in pursuit of Hermia. But Shakespeare is not content with a love triangle in this play – he creates a square, bringing in Lysander, who loves Hermia who, unusually, loves Lysander right back. To review:

Helena loves Demetrius
Demetrius loves Hermia
Hermia and Lysander love each other

Well, any fool can see that Shakespeare, looking toward the future, intended Helena to represent the soul, such as it is, of today's Democratic Party. Demetrius, of course, is, and Lysander is the DNC (Democratic Leadership Council), that camouflaged wing of the Democratic Party that understands elections cannot be won when the party exposes its isolationist let's-withdraw-from-the-world-because-I-personally-have-a-good-job-and-can-afford-Starbucks instincts. And clearly, Hermia represents Electoral Victory, which is why we will let her will remain off-stage until 2006. Again, to review:

Helena = Democratic Party
Demetrius =
Lysander = DNC Wing
Hermia = Electoral Victory

OK, here we go:

Demet/Moveon: "I love thee not, therefore pursue me not.
Where is Lysander and fair Hermia?
The one I'll slay; the other slayeth me.
Thou told'st me they were stol'n into this wood;…"

Hel/Dem Pty: "You draw me, you hardhearted adamant!
But yet you draw not iron, for my heart
Is true as steel. Leave you your power to draw,
And I shall have no power to follow you."

Demet/Moveon: "Do I entice you? Do I speak you fair?
Or rather do I not in plainest truth
Tell you I do not nor I cannot love you?

Hel/Dem Pty: And even for that do I love you the more,
I am your spaniel' and, Demetrius,
The more you beat me I will fawn on you.
Use me but as your spaniel, spurn me, strike me,
Neglect me, lose me; only give me leave,
Unworthy as I am, to follow you…".

OK, so far so good. Let's Moveon along. Lysander and Hermia, fleeing the American people, I mean fleeing parents who don't understand them, enter the wood. Lysander falls asleep and Puck for reasons it would take all night to explain dribbles some love potion number nine onto his eyelids. Lysander awakens just as Helena strolls in (that is, the DNC awakens just as the Democratic Party strolls in):

Hel/Dem Pty: "But who is here, Lysander on the ground?
Dead, or asleep? I see no blood, no wound.
Lysander, if you live, good sir, awake."

Lys/DNC: "And run through fire I will for thy sweet sake.
Transparent Helena! Nature shows art,
That through thy bosom makes me see thy heart,
Where is Demetrius? O, how fit a word
Is that vile name to perish on my sword!"

Hel/Dem Pty: "Do not say so, Lysander, say not so.
What though he love your Hermia? Lord, what though?
Yet Hermia still loves you. Then be content."

See how clear the play becomes, now that we have decoded the Bard's prophetic intentions? Clearly Shakespeare intended to dramatize the Democratic Party's unrequited courtship of the votes of the radical left, followed by the DNC pragmatists' attempt to reclaim the Party's affections.

Let's moveon along some more. Puck next dribbles the love potion onto Demetrius' sleeping eyelids, and Demetrius awakens as, again, Helena conveniently strolls by, that is, awakens to the possibility of grasping full control of the Democratic Party (note that Lysander/DNC Wing is also present, and Helena addresses both men/factions):

Demet/Moveon: "O Helen, goddess, nymph, perfect, divine!
To what, my love, shall I compare thine eyne?
Crystal is muddy. O, how ripe in show
Thy lips, those kissing cherries, tempting grow!
That pure congealed white, high Taurus' snow,
Fanned with the eastern wind, turns to a crow
When thou hold'st up thy hand. O, let me kiss
This princess of pure white, this seal of bliss!"

Hel/Dem Pty: "O spite! O hell! I see you are all bent
To set against me for your merriment.
If you were civil and knew courtesy,
You would not do me thus much injury,
Can you not hate me, as I know you do,
But you must join in souls to mock me too?
If you were men, as men you are in show,
You would not use a gentle lady so…".

Well, that was fun, for me at least. My only additional comment would be a reminder that Shakespeare's real love poetry is always much finer than this. He dumbed it down for effect, the effect being to outline the insincerity and fecklessness of mortals who are suffering under false charms.

P.S. Here's a related, recommendable post from the estimable Generation Why?

And here's one from the always recommendable Confederate Yankee.
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