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

Friday, March 10, 2006

Julius Caesar & Auto-Immune Disease


A medical R&D firm, PharmaFrontiers, recently developed a "personalized" vaccine for multiple sclerosis. The company explains how it operates:

"The vaccine is designed to rein in and destroy the renegade white blood cells that attack myelin cells lining the brain and nerves of patients. To make the vaccine, we take blood from an MS patient and extract a sample of these renegade cells. The cells are then multiplied and weakened with radiation before being re-injected into the patient, whose immune system will then recognize them as damaged and attack them."

The company informs us that not only will the immune system recognize attack the altered renegade cells, it will also begin to attack healthy renegade cells, which have the same markers on their surface. In an admittedly small trial of 15 MS patients, new flare-ups were reduced by 92%.

(Bardseye viewers who suffer from or know someone suffering from this disease should refer to the cited article, and – please - not rely on a mere Shakespeare blog for medical advice).

And speaking of Shakespeare, I trust my fellow bardners are not doubtful of the bard's relevance here. Nothing is foreign to Shakespeare, not even auto-immune disorders and their 21st century cures.

We will take as our text a scene from Julius Caesar, specifically a conversation between the renegade cells who have been removed from the body for radioactive alteration; that is, among the loyalists (those fighting to avenge Caesar's assassination), who are discussing their planned return to power:

Antony: "These many, then shall die. Their names are pricked."

Octavius: "Your brother too must die. Consent you, Lepidus?"

Lepidus: "I do consent."

Oct: "Prick him down, Antony."

Lep: "Upon condition Publius shall not live,
Who is your sister's son, Mark Antony."

Ant: "He shall not live. Look, with a spot I damn him…".

The three men are targeting for death their own kin and clansmen who have given their loyalty to those renegade white blood cells, Brutus, Cassius and the other assassins, former friends and comrades-in-arms with whom they are now locked in a fatal auto-immune reaction; that is, a civil war.

Indeed, no sooner does Lepidus leave the room than Octavius and Antony begin turning on him:

Ant: "This is a slight, unmeritable man,
Meet to be sent on errands. Is it fit,
The threefold world divided, he should stand
One of the three to share it?"

Oct: "You may do your will;
But he's a tried and valiant soldier."

Ant: "So is my horse, Octavius…".

Careful Bardseye viewers will have noted that both the radioactively weakened white cells (Antony, Octavius and Lepidus) residing outside the body (just as those three soldiers have escaped Rome to raise an army), and the unweakened white cells that reside within it (Brutus and Cassius) are renegade cells, whereas in the play only Brutus and Cassius are renegades. Bardseye could argue that by planning a division of the Roman Empire among themselves without seeking the consent of the Senate, Antony and friends are just as renegade as Brutus and Cassius, even as they fight under the banner of revenge for Caesar's death and restoration. Or Bardseye could remind the reader that we are, after all, just having fun here. Anyhoo, let's see what happens when the radioactive white cells are reintroduced into the body of Rome; that is, when the civil war gets started. Here Pindarus describes Titinius, a Brutus loyalist who is charging through the battlefield on his horse (light means get off your horse):

Pin: "Titinius is enclosed round about
With horsemen, that make to him on the spur,
Yet he spurs on. Now they are almost on him.
Mow, Titinius! Now some light. O, he
Lights too. He's ta'en. And hark! They shout fro joy."

"Enclosed round." Aha! Just like renegade white cells being swarmed by the healthy immune system cells! Isn't it obvious? Is it only Bardseye who sees it? Anyhoo, this report so distresses Cassius that he orders Pindarus, his slave, to run him through with his own sword.

Cas: "Here, take now the hilts,
And when my face is covered, as 'tis now,
Guide thou the sword (Pindarus does so.)"

But wait! Just after Cassius arranges for his assisted suicide (oh – make a note for a future post), here enters Titinius. He's not dead at all! The swarming cells were friendly, not hostile, and were greeting and not killing him. But a fat lot of good that does Cassius, or Titinius himself. Anticipating Romeo and Juliet (unless this play was written later), Titinius offs himself as well, loyal toward Cassius to the end.

Thus was Rome restored, and with hope, luck and more miraculous medical research, thus may be restored to health those among us who suffer diseases like multiple sclerosis.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Measure 4 Measure & Gitmo's Guests

Shakespeare addressed the Guantanamo Bay conundrum - what do we do with this special breed of prisoner - in Measure for Measure, his grim meditation on the perils of theocracy that he camouflaged as a comedy. But let's inquire first of our Guests of Gitmo. A recent report has many of them expressing a desire not to be sent home:

"Fearing militants or even their own governments, some prisoners at Guantanamo Bay from China, Saudi Arabia and other nations do not want to go home, according to transcripts of hearings at the U.S. prison in Cuba.

"Uzbekistan, Yemen, Algeria and Syria are also among the countries to which detainees do not want to return. The inmates have told military tribunals that they or their families could be tortured or killed if they are sent back."

One of the things being measured in Measure is a prisoner's neck for the executioner's ax. Like the Gitmo prisoners, the condemned Barnadine's imprisonment has been repeatedly extended because, well, let's let Shakespeare tell it:

Duke: "What is that Barnadine who is to be executed in th' afternoon?"

Provost: "A Bohemian born, but here nursed up and bred, one that is a prisoner nine years old."

Duke: "How came it that the absent Duke had not either delivered him to his liberty or executed him? I have heard it was ever his manner to do so."

Pro: "His friends still wrought reprieves for him; and indeed his fact, till now in the government of Lord Angelo, came not to an undoubtful proof."

Barnadine gives us more Gitmo parallels than Bardseye knows what to do with. Being born in Bohemia – the old term for today's Czech Republic – but "here nursed and bred" raises citizenship issues that would be a dream come true for any ACLU attorney who might volunteer Barnadine's defense. And indeed Barnadine's nine-year imprisonment has resulted from his legally-minded friends who "wrought reprieves for him." Of course, Barnadine wasn't part of an active, mass-murdering, worldwide terrorist movement into whose hating arms he could return upon release.

By the way, that "fact (crime) …came not to an undoubtful proof" business means that until Lord Angelo took over the government, Barnadine's crime had not been proven beyond doubt. Angelo is a priest whom the Duke has temporarily entrusted with the government of Vienna, while the Duke himself, incognito, checks on his citizens, and on Angelo's theocratic administration of justice.

Shakespeare is not as weepy as the ACLU defense lawyers, settling the issue of Barnadine's guilt as quickly as he raises it. The Duke asks the Provost whether Barnadine committed the murder he is charged with:

Duke: "Is it now apparent?"

Pro: "Most manifest, and not denied by himself."

Cut to the tape of 911 call made by the Iranian-American NC State University graduate just moments after he plowed an SUV, rented for the purpose, into a flock of students, as his calm unaccented voice acknowledges to the operator with unmistakable pride that the has just done what he has done, and he asks to be arrested. Mohammud Taheri-Azar's act was on American soil, so he won't be sent to Gitmo. But was the mayhem he committed a crime or an act of war?

Duke: "Hath he borne himself penitently in prison? How seems he to be touched?"

Pro: "A man that apprehends death no more dreadfully but as a drunken sleep – careless, reckless, and fearless of what's past, present or to come; insensible of mortality, and desperately mortal."

Duke: "He wants advice."

That last comment means that he needs spiritual counseling. Well, at this point, we all do. Here's where we get to the part where Barnadine, our Shakespearean Gitmo surrogate, expresses a surprising affinity for his prison:

Pro: "He hath evermore had the liberty of the prison. Give him leave to escape hence, he would not."

Bardseye returns to the news item that began tonight's excursion:

"Inmates have told military tribunals they worry about reprisals from militants who will suspect them of cooperating with U.S. authorities in its war on terror. Others say their own governments may target them for reasons that have nothing to do with why they were taken to Guantanamo Bay in the first place.

"A Uighur told a military tribunal that he feared going back to China so much, he considered trying to convince the panel that he was guilty, according to a hearing transcript.

"'If I am sent back to China, they will torture me really bad,' said the man, whose name did not appear in the transcript. 'They will use dogs. They will pull out my nails.'

"Two of the Uighurs are appealing a federal judge’s rejection of their request to be released in the United States, where a family in the Washington suburbs has offered to take them in."

That's a hospitable family. Any other takers?

Monday, March 06, 2006

Richard III and Ugly Criminals


The Richard III presented to the world by Shakespeare suffered from certain physical imperfections which he allowed to deform his spirit. He complains in his opening speech that the recent conclusion of a war has changed the cultural atmosphere in a way that is not to the advantage of someone with his appearance:

"Grim-visaged War hath smoothed his wrinkled front;
And now, instead of mounting barbed steeds
To fright the souls of fearful adversaries,
He capers numbly in a lady's chamber
To the lascivious pleasing of a lute.
But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks,
Nor made to court an amorous looking glass;
I, that am rudely stamped, and want love's majesty
To trut before a wanton ambling nymph,
I, that am curtailed of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling Nature,
Deformed, unfinished, sent before my time
Into this breathing world scarce half made up…"

Wartime with its test of valor and manly company suited Richard much better. Now that peace can no longer be avoided he knows that the action will shift from the battlefield to the boudoir where his "unfinished" body (Lawrence Olivier played him with a club foot and a stunted hand, but each Richard is free to improvise a preferred flaw – perhaps today he would be the victim of bad plastic surgery) makes it difficult for him to compete.

A recent study conducted by researchers at the University of Colorado and Georgia State determined that ugly people commit more crimes than attractive people. (Cut to Oscar Wilde loftily opining that being ugly is in itself blah blah blah. Shakespeare's humor at 400 years of age has retained its mirth better than Wilde's at 100).

"Mocan and Tekin analyzed data from a federally sponsored survey of 15,000 high-schoolers who were interviewed in 1994 and again in 1996 and 2002.

"We find that unattractive individuals commit more crime in comparison to average-looking ones, and very attractive individuals commit less crime in comparison to those who are average-looking."

Rich: "And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them –
Why, I , in this weak piping time of peace.
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to see my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity."

Mocan and Tekin aren't sure why criminals tend to be ugly. They do note that other studies have shown that unattractive men and women are less likely to be hired, and that they earn less money, than the better-looking. They then speculate that "such inferior circumstances may steer some to crime." Richard III sees the matter differently:

Rich: "And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.
Plots have I laid……………..

Presumably because that's about all he can expect to. Ahem. Richard is no victim, but the conscious captain of his fate, staking out a niche in treachery and deception because that's the field in which he feels he can excel.

"Mocan and Tekin also report that more attractive students have better grades and more polished social skills, which means they graduate with a greater chance of staying out of trouble."

Rich: "…………..inductions dangerous
By drunken prophecies, libels and dreams,
To set my brother Clarence and the King
In deadly hate the one against the other…".

One of my favorite quotes in Shakespeare comes from Twelfth Night, when Antonio feels himself betrayed by Sebastian (actually he has mistaken Viola, Sebastian's sister, dressed as a man, for Sebastian, and all end's well later). Antonio curses Sebastian thus:

Ant: "In nature there's no blemish but the mind;
None can be called deformed but the unkind."

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Henry VI Part I & Bennish the Nebbish


Jay Bennish, a high school geography teacher in Ohio, spent twenty minutes of class time berating the Bush administration, comparing the president to Hitler and describing the 9/11 attack as provoked:

Bennish: "(Bush) started off his speech talking about how America should be the country that dominates the world….Sounds a lot like the things that Adolph Hitler used to say."

"We're the only ones who are right. Everyone else is backwards. And it's our job to conquer the world…."

"In actuality, if you remember back to my first day, the Sept. 11 attacks were, according to Bin Laden, a direct response to our support of the nation of Israel, which they consider to be a terrorist regime….and they also did it because of what Bill Clinton (did) when he launched attacks into Afghanistan and Sudan …".

The demonization of your opponent – and Bennish's opponent seems to be the entire US government, not just Bush - was not unknown to Shakespeare. When the gains in France made under Henry V began to come undone during the reign of Henry VI, England even 200 years later (that is, at the time Shakespeare dramatized the events) could not accept that this had happened largely at the hands not only of the French but of a French woman - Joan of Arc. Playing to his audience, Shakespeare renames the Frech heroine Pucelle (whore). Here Talbot, Bedford and Burgundy sneak up on Joan, scaling ladders into her redoubt, all the while slandering her:

Tal: "Embrace we then this opportunity
As fitting best to quittance their deceit,
Contrived by art and baleful sorcery."

Bed: "Coward of France, how much he wrongs his fame,
Despairing of his own arm's fortitude,
To join with witches and the help of hell!

Bur: "Traitors have never other company,
But what's that Pucelle whom they term so pure?"

The "coward of France" is the Dauphin, who they claim has degraded himself by accepting Joan's assistance. Joan, of course, is the baleful sorcerer, the witch and the help of hell. Here is our modern-day Talbot taking aim at his multiple Joans of Arc:

Bennish: "Can you imagine? What is the world's number one single cause of death by a drug? What drug is responsible for the most deaths in the world? Cigarettes! Who is the world's largest producer of cigarettes and tobacco? The United States!"
"Where does it say anything about capitalism is an economic system that will provide everyone in the world with the basic needs that they need? IS that a part of this system? Do you see how this economic system is at odds with humanity? At odds with caring and compassion? It's at odds with human rights."

Bennish's demons have now expanded beyond Bush and the government to America itself, along with its handmaiden, capitalism. Meanwhile, back in France around 1400, Joan is kicking England's army across France like a soccer ball. Talbot is unable to comprehend Joan's military success in just the way that Bennish is unable to countenance President Bush's unapologetic prosecution of the war on terror. Because Joan of Arc and Bush can hardly represent competent leadership, Bennish and Talbot seek for supernatural explanations:

Tal/Bennish: "Foul fiend of France and hag of all despite,
Encompassed with thy lustful paramours!"

Well, ok, the accusation that President Bush encompasses himself with lustful paramours was absent from Bennish's rant. Anyhoo, here York at last captures Joan in Act V:

York: "Damsel of France, I think I have thee fast,
Unchain your spirits now with spelling charms,
And try if they can gain your liberty.
A goodly prize, fit for the devil's grace!
See how the ugly witch doth bend her brows
As if, with Circe, she would change my shape!"

Something of this irrationality survives today not only in Bennish's unmoored musings about Bush, but in the entire paranoid project of the American left, that finds vast right-wing conspiracies among Republican politicians, and imputes evil genius to Karl Rove as the mastermind and to Dick Cheney as the puppeteer of the current presidency. How could a mere woman like Joan of Arc; that is a mere Texan like George W. Bush, manage three successive electoral victories for his party, and succeed in so much else (tax cuts, supreme court justice appointments, the treating of terrorists as enemies rather than criminal defendants) that is inimical to the left?

It must be sorcery, dark magic, portents and spells.

Friday, March 03, 2006

America's Friendship with India


"Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,
Grapple them unto thy soul with hoops of steel."

Hamlet, I.iii.62

Yesterday, or today if you are in the US, President Bush addressed the people of India while a guest of that great and rising nation:

Bush: "I appreciate the opportunity to speak to the Indian people. I'm honored to bring the good wishes and the respect of the world's oldest democracy to the world's largest democracy."

India in the 21st century is a natural partner of the United States because we are brothers in the cause of human liberty. Yesterday, I visited a memorial to Mahatma Gandhi, and read the peaceful words of a fearless man. His words are familiar in my country because they helped move a generation of Americans to overcome the injustice of racial segregation. When Martin Luther King arrived in Delhi in 1959, he said to other countries, 'I may go as a tourist, but to India, I come as a pilgrim.' I come to India as a friend."

"I count myself in nothing else so happy
As in a soul remembering my good friends."

Richard II, II.iii.46

President Bush has mentioned as early as 1999, when a candidate for the presidency and a mere Texas governor, the need for closer ties between America and India. But there were obstacles to overcome. India, a majority Hindu country surrounded by Islamic nations, was at that time was pursuing a nuclear program that, however justified by its defense needs, fell afoul of the nuclear non-proliferation rules the US sought to enforce. In truth, the rules failed to recognize the distinction between democracies, which can largely be trusted to use nukes defensively, and autocracies, which can be expected to use them to blackmail free nations. India's turn away from economic statism, in addition, began only around 1991 and required more time to generate more wealth and win more adherents.

But President Bush was patient and strategic, seeing a counterweight to Chinese fascism (communists don't have stock markets – China, as a one-party state with a market economy, now qualifies as fascist) and Islamic extremism. He perhaps also saw India as a South Asian model of a pluralistic, democratic free market state encompassing a large Muslim minority. But along with all these convergent national interests, Bardseye believes that President Bush simply saw, and sees, a friend:

Bush: "In both our countries, democracy is more than a form of government, it is the central promise of our national character. We believe that every citizen deserves equal liberty and justice, because we believe that every life has equal dignity and value. We believe all societies should welcome people of every culture, ethnicity and religion. And because of this enduring commitment, the United States and India have overcome trials in our own history. We're proud to stand together among the world's great democracies.

"The partnership between the United States and India begins with democracy, but it does not end there. Our people share a devotion to family, a passion for learning, a love of the arts, and much more. The United States is the proud home of more than two million Americans of Indian descent, a figure that has more than tripled over the last 20 years. America is honored to welcome 500,000 Indian tourists and businesspeople to our country each year. And we benefit from 80,000 Indian students at our universities, more than we have from any other nation."

"If the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restored and sorrows end."

Sonnet #30

Bush: "The advance for freedom is the great story of our time. In 1945, just two years before India achieved independence, there were fewer than two dozen democracies on Earth. Today there are more than 100, and democracies are developing and thriving from Asia to Africa, to Eastern Europe, to Latin America. The whole world can see that freedom is not an American value, or an Indian value. Freedom is a universal value, and that is because the source of freedom is a power greater than our own. Mahatma Gandhi said, "Freedom is the gift of God...and the right of every nation." Let us remember those words as we head into the 21st century."

Bardseye feels proud today to see formalized this natural friendship. India and America need engage in no compromise of their own values in dealing with each other. In dealing with India, America need feel none of the hypocrisy we feel in dealing with oil-rich autocracies in the Middle East or with a fascist Chinese regime that dictates the lives of its people. Truth be told, our friends are few, and compose a group of isolated, oddball nations; England, Singapore, Poland, Israel, Australia and New Zealand, chief among them. Today we (formally) add India, whom we should indeed grapple to our souls with hoops of steel.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Richard II and the Wiretap Dance


Howdy, bardners! (Sorry, couldn't resist).

In the year 800, King Charlemagne, having (briefly) consolidated power over much of Europe, went to Rome to sort things out there. While he was kneeling in prayer, the Pope placed a gold crown on his head, making him Holy Roman Emperor. Charlemagne was careful not to make the same mistake again. In 813, in Aachen, he had his son crowned as his successor. But this time Charlemagne himself placed the crown on his son's head, cutting out the middleman. I sense my reader asking a question:

So what?

Well, something similar is going on in the US government, where the President and Congress are each grasping at the crown of authority – authority to authorize invasions of privacy in the name of the nation's security. You know, wiretaps of those chatty Cathy terrorists (cut to a furious Bin Laden, waving his cell phone bill in an accusatory manner at Zarqawi. "Do you realize the roaming charges you ran up last month?")

But getting back to Shakespeare where we belong, we will peer in on a scene from Richard II – the non-famous Richard play, whose Richard is ignominiously deposed by the future Henry IV. Yes, nothing became Richard II's reign like the leaving of it. Here is Richard II resigning his crown to Bolingbroke (the future Henry IV):

RII: "Alack, why am I sent for to a king,
Before I have shook off the regal thoughts
Wherewith I reigned? I hardly yet have learned
To insinuate, flatter, bow, and bend my knee.
Give sorrow leave awhile to tutor me
To this submission. Yet I well remember
The favors of these men. Were they not mine?
Did thy not sometime cry, "All hail!" to me?

So Judas did to Christ……….
To what service am I sent for hither?"

York: "…The resignation of thy state and crown
To Henry Bolingbroke."

KII: "Give me the crown.
Here, cousin, seize the crown. Here, cousin,
On this side my hand, and on that side thine,
Now is this golden crown like a deep well
That owes two buckets, filling one another,
The emptier ever dancing in the air,
The other down, unseen, and full of water,
That bucket down and full of tears am I,
Drinking my griefs, whilst you mount up on high."

Bol: I thought you had been willing to resign."

RII: "My crown I am, but still my griefs are mine."

Not only who wields power, but how that power has been gained, and specifically with what legitimacy, matters. The Presidential election in 2000 was contested for over five weeks, with Al Gore gaining more total votes but losing in the electoral college (where each state is alloted a set number of votes with the winner of each state taking all). As a result, President Bush's legitimacy was questioned by the left side of an already polarized electorate. This limited his scope of action, and probably played a key role in some of his more moderate appointments, chief among these being his selection of Colin Powell as Secretary of State. Powell,in turn, was the chief architect of using the UN route into Iraq, and the UN route required that the US emphasize the WMD argument, which remains an albatross around Bush's neck.

Thus ripens the tainted fruit of a questioned election.

But we were talking about wiretaps in 2006. Or was it Richard II in 1399, or Shakespeare depicting him around 1595? Or was it Charlemagne in 800? Where were we, anyway?

RII: "…God save King Henry, unkinged Richard says,
And send him many years of sunshine days! –
What more remains?"

Northumberland: "No more but that you read
These accusation and these grievous crimes
Committed by your person and your followers
Against the state and profit of this land;
That, by confessing them, the souls of men
May deem that you are worthily deposed."

RII: "Must I do so?"

President Bush must be thinking the same about his wiretap program (now I remember), which Congress has offered to legalize and permit just as soon as he acknowledges its current illegality. The president is also asked to surrender his claim that the Constitution provides him with authority to wiretap terrorists as part of his executive power to wage war, and bend his knee to Congress as the source of that authority. Shakespeare might have wondered at our exalted system of balanced powers, and scoffed at the idea of commoners selecting presidents ("temporary kings," we would need to explain to him). But the enduring power struggle beneath it all he would clearly understand. In fact, he explains it to us.


Here's a recommendable post from Joe's Cafe.
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