Poem-A-Day: William Shakespeare

I like to post something by Shakespeare to commemorate the anniversary of his birth and death every year. It was yesterday — both his birthday and his deathday — and I missed the date, alas. But I’m just not on top of things as well as I’d like to be this week. My school and writing loads are both, at the moment, heavy.

I’ve been thinking about middle school lately, since I’ve got a daughter in the thick of it and my son will embark upon it next year. Middle school is such a traumatic time of life, for nearly everyone. That’s just developmentally where humans are. (I might, in fact, be concerned about someone who didn’t find it awful in at least some ways.)

One monologue that I always come back to is Helena’s indignation from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Like many young person social dramas, a great deal of hurt follows a great deal of misunderstanding. I’m not trying to celebrate that. However, I find this monologue particularly poignant.

In the wonderful film version of this play from 1999, Calista Flockhart makes what might be one of her greatest performances ever, as Helena. She does an amazing job of portraying a young lady with not nearly enough self-respect but a fire in her belly.

***

Injurious Hermia! most ungrateful maid!
Have you conspired, have you with these contrived
To bait me with this foul derision?
Is all the counsel that we two have shared,
The sisters’ vows, the hours that we have spent,
When we have chid the hasty-footed time
For parting us,–O, is it all forgot?
All school-days’ friendship, childhood innocence?
We, Hermia, like two artificial gods,
Have with our needles created both one flower,
Both on one sampler, sitting on one cushion,
Both warbling of one song, both in one key,
As if our hands, our sides, voices and minds,
Had been incorporate. So we grow together,
Like to a double cherry, seeming parted,
But yet an union in partition;
Two lovely berries moulded on one stem;
So, with two seeming bodies, but one heart;
Two of the first, like coats in heraldry,
Due but to one and crowned with one crest.
And will you rent our ancient love asunder,
To join with men in scorning your poor friend?
It is not friendly, ’tis not maidenly:
Our sex, as well as I, may chide you for it,
Though I alone do feel the injury.

***

Ah, youth. As they say, it is wasted on the young.

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National Poetry Month — Day 24

For Shakespeare’s birthday, I’m sharing a fragment from Romeo and Juliet that never ceases to amaze me. It’s from that glorious balcony scene — no, I’m not a romantic at all, why do you ask? — the scene that made me want to take up acting when I was very young.

Also, this fragment is one that gives me fits, as an English teacher and general lover of language, because people get its meaning wrong all the time. Here’s a hint to help this fragment make actual, logical sense: “wherefore” means “why,” not “where.” If it meant “where,” that would suggest Juliet knows Romeo is out in the garden, and part of the point of the start of this scene is that she does not. He completely surprises her when he climbs up that trellis.

Also, if “wherefore” meant “where,” the rest of the lines would be a somewhat confusing non sequitur.

 

Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?
Deny thy father and refuse thy name,
or if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love,
And I’ll no longer be a Capulet.

 

Notice the lack of direct-address comma after “thou” in the first line? Yeah, me too. Its absence means she isn’t addressing him a third time in that sentence, but that his name here is a direct object of “art” (“are” in modern parlance).

As it turns out, Juliet is musing on the misfortune of the boy she likes being a Montague, and thus a member of the family her own family is feuding with and sworn to hate. This moment of pre-rebellious reverie is important, too, because she’s deciding that if Romeo won’t renounce his family, then all he has to do is swear his love to her, and she’ll give up her family, to be with him.

Hijinks ensue.

 

***

 

And just for fun, here’s an amazeballs flow chart from goodticklebrain.com to help you decide which of Sheakespeare’s plays you might want to watch to commemorate his birth- and deathday.

Witches #2

Among the litany of ridonculous nonsense I had to put up with this week was a post about Shakespeare — specifically, about the ruination of Shakespeare by the (previously-by-me) respected Oregon Shakespeare Festival. The festival’s organizers are now commissioning translations of Shakespeare’s plays — that’s right, “translations” of plays written in an English that is, in the scope of the language, already rather modern — into contemporary diction.

This is harmful and stupid.

The organizers claim that audiences feel disconnected from Shakespeare’s language, that it’s too difficult to understand. The article I linked above makes the point, which I agree with, that usually the problem is that actors and directors don’t really understand the language well enough themselves to be putting it on their stage in the first place. I can’t even count the number of unfortunate productions I’ve sat through (at least until intermission) that were filled with people sawing the air with their hands and shouting dramatically at each other by the third scene, how many shows where the actors paused their sentences in the wrong place, not paying attention even to the punctuation in the script, much less to the depth of the meaning or the subtext.

This is similar to the problem I have with so many interpretations of Shakespeare which take his plays out of his time. Sometimes a director will set the play in a different time and place, but this only works when the themes and conflicts relevant to Shakespeare’s play are also actually relevant to the new time and place. Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet had its flaws, but feuding families transported from Renaissance Italy to the gang-infested streets of 1990s Los Angeles county — that worked. Setting Twelfth Night in the 1980s — yes, the narcissism of Duke Orsino’s character writ large against a soundtrack that included David Bowie, Morissey, and New Wave, men and women in gender-ambiguous costumes and make-up — lovely.

But I once saw a musical version of Much Ado About Nothing set amongst the football players and cheerleaders of a college campus in the 1950s. Clever and interesting in some ways — and serious props go to the very young and ambitious person who wrote it, for certain — but that play is about a young woman’s virtue being a function of her virginity, and the disastrous break-up of her imminent marriage when her fiancé believed her to have been “not a maid.” How much of an issue was premarital sex among football players and cheerleaders in 1950s American colleges? Probably not a big enough deal for a girl to apparently die over it at the altar.

I get the argument, really I do. “Young audiences can’t relate to Shakespeare’s time so let’s set it in one they can recognize.” On the surface that might seem to get more people into the theater, but the result of this well-intentioned mountain coming to Mohammed is that those audiences might become less able, in the future, to understand and relate to Shakespeare as it truly is. As a high school English teacher, one who tries every year to help fifteen- and sixteen-year-olds appreciate the beauty and complexity of Shakespeare’s language and his historical context and the work’s inherent magic, I have to lament the decisions that take the Bard out of his moment. Sometimes, when not executed thoughtfully or well, these choices do my students a disservice and make my job harder.

Look, I’m not a complete snob. I know Shakespeare is challenging. If it weren’t, we wouldn’t still be reading and producing and watching it four hundred years later. The language is all he left us, and it is glorious. Take that away, and you’re left with Cliff’s Notes and one more trudge forward in the dumbing down of our culture.

If you really have a burning desire to contemporize Shakespare, hire authors to write novels.

The third witch, in a dress I would gladly wear -- and maybe that tells you something about my perspective -- posing on the carved cedar chest I inherited from my grandparents which sits in my library.
The third witch, in a dress I would gladly wear — and maybe that tells you something about my perspective — posing on the carved cedar chest I inherited from my grandparents which sits in my library.

Rebecca Reisert’s The Third Witch tells the story of a young woman who falls in with a couple of weird sisters scavenging a battlefield, a woman whose post-traumatic stress and ensuing ferocity inspire her to avenge the heinous wrongs wreaked upon her family. This domestic-drama-turned-medieval-thriller is an imaginative retelling of Macbeth from the perspective of a character who, in the play, is fairly minor. It’s an excellent read, and it enhances one’s understanding of the original in a way that gives audiences something new and fresh.

It doesn’t treat the audience like six-year-olds. It assumes their intelligence, their familiarity with Macbeth and his lady, and it asks them to consider all the ways in which Lady Macbeth can be a villain, all the ways in which a thane-turned-king can be ambitious.

This is a good book. A dear friend gave it to me for my birthday, and I remember picking it idly up one afternoon while I was checking my email just to browse the first chapter, fully intending to read it after the semester was done. I opened to the first page and began reading — and I didn’t look up again until chapter five.

Don’t bastardize the Bard. Give us true ekphrasis, something new in response which pays homage to the original’s depth and plumbs the profound alongside it, rather than instead.

Featured Poet: The Bard

It’s Shakespeare’s birthday (observed), and I ran across one of his sonnets today that I didn’t remember having read before (though maybe I did in college).

 

***

 

Sonnet 73

 

That time of year thou may’st in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day,
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by-and-by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire
Consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by.
This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

 

***

 

Do I really need to give you biographical information about William Shakespeare? How about this: he wasn’t Francis Bacon.

Featured Poet: William Shakespeare

Today is one of the more commonly accepted birthdates for William Shakespeare, so he gets a turn here on the blog tonight.  Happy 450th, Will!  Isn’t that a milestone?

I thought about posting one of my favorite of his sonnets, the one we used as a reading at our wedding, “Let me not to the marriage of true minds / Admit impediments…”  But then I thought that might be too expected, and instead I considered some of my personal history with the bard.  Don’t worry, I won’t go into it all here.  Ain’t nobody got time for that!  But I do want to share one anecdote.

When I was in high school, my boyfriend took me to see Henry V at the cinema.  At the time, all I really knew of Shakespeare was Romeo and Juliet and scraps here and there of historical data and maybe a play fragment or two.  I had heard of Othello and Hamlet and Macbeth but hadn’t read them yet.  I had heard of The Taming of the Shrew because Moonlighting had done an episode called “Atomic Shakespeare” that my parents had recorded on their VCR and let me watch one day when I was home, sick, from school — since I’d already watched it at my grandparents’ house with my aunt.

I had no familiarity with any of Shakespeare’s histories at all.

So this boy took me to see Henry V because a friend of his had told him how good it was.  As far as mainstream American audiences were concerned, this was our first really good look at a young and really good-looking Kenneth Branagh.  And, in my memory, the movie was an unusually modern and accessible Shakespeare Film.

I fell, a little headfirst, in love.

Not with my boyfriend.  Not even with Branagh, though I did come out of the movie with a little bit of a crush on him.  Not with Judi Dench’s acting, though it was marvelous, and not with Christian Bale — then a teenager and adorable to my eyes because he was about my age and also, clearly, a really good actor.  (I felt sickened looking at his character’s corpse on the battlefield.)

I fell in love with language.  With the manipulation of it by Derek Jacobi, the Chorus.  With Brian Blessed’s enormous stage presence when he said, “Tennis balls, my liege” — a line that still cracks me up when I think about it.  With the overwrought and latently anxious descriptions of “a most excellent horse.”  With Emma Thompson trying to say “neck.”  With the two bishops whispering conspiratorially in a torchlit corridor at the very beginning of the film.  With Lord Scrope, whom I felt so bad for because I was a teen and susceptible to his gothic face, and I was heartbroken by his betrayal, and I felt torn when they arrested him, though his treason be “another fall of man.”

The part that stunned me the most, though, was that even though I’d never read the play, watching the movie, I understood nearly every sentence.  And it was here that I began to understand why Shakespeare’s plays were meant to be seen more than read.  The idea that language could make more sense to me — to me, a lifelong avid reader whose favorite toys as a child were actually books — that it could be more familiar to my brain on a stage rather than on a page was startling to say the least.

Henry V broke open a floodgate for me, and with every piece of Shakespeare I read after that, I was able to read more and translate less as I went along.  My self-confidence flourished.

So instead of sharing one of the many technically astute, even perfect, sonnets (such tiny masterpieces), I want to present here a part of Henry V.  So many glorious speeches to choose from — Hal was the first motivational speaker I ever knew — and the one I’ve picked is the very first one in the play, the Prologue.  It’s about what actors do on a stage in front of an audience, yes, but it’s also about what we as writers do, embroidering stories on the imagination, creating something, everything, from nothing but incorporeal thought.

It’s Derek Jacobi in a black trenchcoat, backstage, lighting a single wooden match.

Oh, a Muse of fire, indeed.

***

O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention,
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!
Then should the warlike Harry, like himself,
Assume the port of Mars; and at his heels,
Leash’d in like hounds, should famine, sword and fire
Crouch for employment. But pardon, and gentles all,
The flat unraisèd spirits that have dared
On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth
So great an object: can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?
O, pardon! since a crooked figure may
Attest in little place a million;
And let us, ciphers to this great accompt,
On your imaginary forces work.
Suppose within the girdle of these walls
Are now confined two mighty monarchies,
Whose high upreared and abutting fronts
The perilous narrow ocean parts asunder:
Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts;
Into a thousand parts divide one man,
And make imaginary puissance;
Think when we talk of horses, that you see them
Printing their proud hoofs i’ the receiving earth;
For ’tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings,
Carry them here and there; jumping o’er times,
Turning the accomplishment of many years
Into an hour-glass: for the which supply,
Admit me Chorus to this history;
Who prologue-like your humble patience pray,
Gently to hear, kindly to judge, our play.