Monday, April 30, 2007

Channeling Shakespeare

On a completely different topic...

Here is an incredible article by Alan Dershowitz about Jimmy Carter's major reliance on funding from the Saudis and a number of Arab sources. The conclusion:

If money determines political and public views as Carter insists "Jewish money" does, Carter's views on the Middle East must be deemed to have been influenced by the vast sums of Arab money he has received. If he who pays the piper calls the tune, then Carter's off-key tunes have been called by his Saudi Arabian paymasters. It pains me to say this, but I now believe that there is no person in American public life today who has a lower ratio of real to apparent integrity than Jimmy Carter. The public perception of his integrity is extraordinarily high. His real integrity, it now turns out, is extraordinarily low. He is no better than so many former American politicians who, after leaving public life, sell themselves to the highest bidder and become lobbyists for despicable causes. That is now Jimmy Carter's sad legacy.

It's very detailed -- The Real Jimmy Carter - Alan M. Dershowitz

Sunday, April 29, 2007

If we all talked Shakespeare

I just found out about a column published in honor of Shakespeare's birthday in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune: We can’t all be Shakespeare — but we could try to be. Author: Joe Muldoon. Also published in his blog at Thoughts upon the Bard's Birthday. Also discussed on NPR and in the blog polyglot conspiracy in Shakespeare would text.

Well, Mr. Muldoon showed us what would happen if we constantly quoted Shakespeare instead of trying to think up new ways to say things. He demonstrated that this approach would be fine as long as there was a famous quote to fit whatever was going on. I suspect that we'd all be pretty quickly bored from nothing new, even if the quotes express a past thought much better than we can speak for ourselves. All his examples are the most overused Shakespeare quotations anyway -- he didn't seem to bother to read even one play to look for a new idea!

Here's how the article ends, a passage that I think illustrates my point:

And then -- the finale! One day, bewildered by senescence or stoked to the brim on pain pills, I will rampage out the door of the nursing home to weave among the semis on I-94. In a snowstorm. It's got to be a snowstorm.

As a mighty Peterbilt juggernaut bears down, the driver will hear my defiant challenge: "Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow! You cataracts and hurricanoes . ... "

Said driver surely will stop and scurry to my side. As life seeps from my poor body, she will pull a tarp off the flatbed and -- ye gods, let it be so! -- be reminded of something she heard in English class long ago. (Though she'll as likely have a Ph.D. in literature.)

With snow swirling about, she will whisper ever so gently, "Good night, sweet prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!"

'Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Shakespeare's Birthday Presents

According to New York Times book reviewer William Grimes: this month brings "a stack of Shakespeare books released to coincide with the playwright’s birthday on April 23. Such onslaughts are a time-honored ritual, but this year the pickings are unusually rich." The review: Keeping the Faith With Shakespeare.

Most discussed is the latest single-volume edition of the plays edited by Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen (Modern Library). I'm sure it's great, but when I actually read plays, I want a small, easy-to-handle volume. In fact, in my latest project of rereading a fair portion of the plays, I've been buying new paperbacks to replace the ones I discarded many years ago.

The reviewer enthuses about the "wayward and intermittently brilliant" observations in A. D. Nuttall’s Shakespeare the Thinker (Yale University Press): "a close reading of the plays that tries to map the creases and folds in Shakespeare’s mysterious, elusive brain. ... with pithy barroom observations sharing space with arguments so fine-spun they threaten to disappear on the page." I don't know if I want to read that or not. Another reviewed book I doubt I'll read: a book about riots over Shakespeare performance in 19th century New York.

For me the most appealing of the new books from this discussion is David Bevington: This Wide and Universal Theater (University of Chicago Press). I'm adding it to my list of books to be read along with my projected Shakespeare reading. From the review:

Mr. Bevington, by focusing on the stage directions in Shakespeare’s plays, shows how actors relied on words alone to suggest time, place and action, and how the stage at the Globe could be manipulated in the hands of a canny playwright. There was no balcony in “Romeo and Juliet.” On the other hand, since there was nothing in the way of stage d├ęcor, no intervals were needed to move from scene to scene. More recent directors, returning to Shakespeare’s idea of staging, have embraced abstract spaces and let the language do the work.

Monday, April 23, 2007

From a Friend in London: Shakespeare's Birthday

Did you know that today (April 23 - also St. George's Day) is Shakespeare's "official birthday"? I learnt this nugget of information from Radio 3 (BBC's classical music channel) while showering this morning. They played

Extract from "A Shakespeare Ode On the Witches & Fairies"
Helen Parker & Julia Gooding (sopranos)
Musicians of the Globe
Philip Pickett, director
PHILIPS 4466892 Tr 2-8

The extract dealt with Shakespeare's birthday - hence the reason for playing it. I searched out the above details from the playlist on the BBC website - but I'm not recommending you to search for it - it was pretty dire.

When they say that it's his "official birthday" I don't know if that means they only know the year that he was born & therefore "gave" him St. George's day as his birthday or whether he's like the Queen (who has a real birthday and an "official" one on which she "troops the colour").

Apparently they had a party for him at "Shakespeare's Globe" yesterday evening & tonight, from 8pm onwards they are further celebrating by projecting various films of Shakespeare's plays (including one dating from 1899!) onto the walls of the theatre.

I thought of you & your blog when I learnt all these facts this morning!!

Friday, April 20, 2007

Measure for Measure

Experiments on human subjects cause much soul-searching in our society. As a result of this ingrained mistrust, I'm uncomfortable with the basic premise of Shakespeare's Measure for Measure. In the play, the Duke of Vienna leaves a morally questionable man, Angelo, in charge of his duchy. While Angelo abuses his delegated power, the Duke disguises himself as a friar and watches and even manipulates some of Angelo's victims. There are no specifics to show that this is Vienna: it might as well be Venice or Stratford-on-Avon.

The Story. In an excess of legalism, Angelo imprisons Claudio and sentences him to death for having slept with his fiance before marriage. (They couldn't get married because of some problem resolving dowry issues that were comprehensible in Shakespeare's time but are not so clear now, I think.) She's off somewhere, pregnant. In his early appearances, characters portray Angelo as a cold, unfeeling man: his blood is "snow-broth." (I, iv, 58)

Claudio's sister Isabel is about to take vows as a nun. She's called in to beg Angelo to free him. Angelo demands sexual favors from her. The disguised Duke participates in quite a few of the conversations, disguised as a Friar -- he even hears confessions, and elicits unwary remarks against himself. In asides and to one in the know he gives various explanations for his experimentation and his desire to be outside of his usual reponsible role as Duke.

The Duke already knew that Angelo had jilted a woman, Mariana, several years before, when her dowry was lost. So does this mean the Duke didn't hesitate to put a morally compromised man in charge? Not clear.

The duke ensures that Mariana is sent in Isabel's place to sleep with Angelo. The next morning, he demands Claudio's head on a platter. He's clearly a bad egg! With the Duke's connivance, the jailers bring the head of a man who died in prison of natural causes -- and coincidentally resembles Claudio. (Mariana is shown in the drawing by Rosetti.)

In the last act, the Duke undisguises himself and shows up to straighten things out and extract confessions, apologies, and reconciliations from everyone, including a forced marriage of Angelo to Mariana. Isabel is offered the death of Angelo, but forgives him. Claudio returns. All occurs with maximum drama and surprises.

The Shakespearan Side of the Play. Shakespeare entertains us with lots of philosophizing by the various characters, and a bit of baudy joking between some low-lifes and a brothel owner named Mistress Overdone -- she had nine husbands: "Overdone by the last." (II, i, 211) The action flows magnificently, and the characters' emotions and personalities are very fully developed. Pure Shakespeare. But that darn Duke is so manipulative: how could he do that to them?

Says the disguised Duke when comforting Claudio, whose death he could so easily prevent:
Thou bear'st thy heavy riches but a journey,
And death unloads the. Friend hast thou none,
For thine own bowels, which do call thee sire,
The mere effusion of thy proper loins,
Do curse the gout, serpigo, and the rheum,
For ending thee no sooner. Thou has nor youth, nor age,
But as it were an after-dinner's sleep,
Dreaming on both, for all thy blessed youth
Becomes as aged, and doth beg the alms
Of palsied eld; and whn thou art old, and rich,
Thou hast neither heat, affection, limb nor beauty,
To make thy riches pleasant. What's yet in this
That bears the name of life? Yet in this life
Lie hid moe thousand deaths; yet death we fear
That makes these odds all even. (III, i, 27-41)

Friday, April 13, 2007

Shakespeare in "The Guardian"

A fascinating article in The Guardian presents a summary of Shakespeare's reputation throughout history. The article (which appears to be unsigned) discusses how Shakespeare's popularity developed, beginning in Shakespeare's lifetime and continuing with the Folio edition. The article shows that, as the plays were reprinted over and over again, each era reinterpreted the plays in its own context.

The headlines:

A man for all ages

According to many critics of his time, Shakespeare was vulgar, provincial and overrated. So how did he become the supreme deity of poetry, drama and high culture itself, asks Jonathan Bate, editor of the first Complete Works from the Folio for 300 years

Saturday April 14, 2007


A man for all ages

As we read them

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007)

Kurt Vonnegut Dies at 84-- according to The New York Times obituary Vonnegut "invented phenomena like chrono-synclastic infundibula (places in the universe where all truths fit neatly together) as well as religions, like the Church of God the Utterly Indifferent and Bokononism."

Most of the memorials written to him today remark on his influence on "counterculture" types beginning in the mid-1960s. These (perhaps imagined) counterculturalists, who awaited publication of each new book as it was published, were at the time held responsible for all kinds of things that the opposite end of the Generation Gap hated. The elders worried about his bad influence. He didn't take serious things seriously enough, and his thoughts on war were problematic for the war in Vietnam. He invented supernatural phenomena and religions that didn't flatter existing beliefs. At all.

I loved Vonnegut. Was he deep or shallow? A bad influence or a good one? I don't care. His books were fun to read, and they captured something important: the futility and excess of the grownups' behavior. I hope I never get as old-minded as the grownups were.

PS: Last night on "The Daily Show" the Moment of Zen showed an inteview of Jon Stewart with Vonnegut. Supports my point: he was the oldest un-grownup we had.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

When shall we three meet again?

From the first line of Macbeth onward, I remember indelibly much because of the intense memorization required when I was in high school. Rereading nevertheless amused me and fascinated me. I can't resist enjoying the many facets of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth even if my high school English teacher's voice keeps cackling the lines in my head. I like contemplating Lady Macbeth's steely resolve that turns to madness, and the pain and horror of all the victims.

To reread the play is always to revisit the questions of whether Macbeth is free to decide his own path or if he's inevitably condemned by his own ambition and the goading of the witches. The shaping of these questions begins with the witches' first predictions. Banquo raises questions as soon as the witches leave, setting the tone for the whole play. Are the witches (which Banquo calls "bubbles") setting Macbeth up to do evil? Or are they simple fortune tellers? Banquo's view is so rational compared to that of Macbeth -- and he so soon pays for it. His words:

But 'tis strange;
And oftentimes to win us to our harm,
The instruments of darkness tell us truths,
Win us with honest trifles, to betray us
In deepest consequence. (I, iii, 122-126)

The witches struck me in a new way in this reading. They are just as magical, airy, and ineffible as the fairies of Midsummer Night's Dream, I realized. They fly, they only have a material presence sometimes, they answer to the abyss, they commune with all sorts of other spirits. I don't think this aspect was part of my high school lessons.

A few of the quotes that gave me a new view of Shakespeare's supernatural world especially surprised me with their similarity to Puck and the harmless fairies. Here are the words of a spirit accompanying Hecate:

O what a dainty pleasure's this,
To sail i'th'air while the moon shines fair,
To sing, to toy, to dance, and kiss.
Over woods, high rocks and mountains,
Over hills and misty fountains,
Over steeples, towers and turrets
We fly by night 'mongst troops of spirits.
No ring of bells to our ears sounds,
No howls of wolves nor yelps of hounds,
No, not the noise of water's breach,
Nor cannons' throats our height can reach. (III, v, 55-65)

A little later Hecate in person responds to the long recipe in the famous "Double, double toil and trouble" speech:

O, well done! I commend your pains,
And every one shall share i' th' gains.
And now about the cauldron sing
Like elves and fairies in a ring,
Enchanting all that you put in.
Music and a song intervene, and Hecate continues:
Black spirits and white,
Red spirits and gray
Mingle, mingle, mingle,
You that mingle may. ( IV, i, 39-45)

The more I read, the more I picture the witches as beautiful women, even despite the reference to their beards -- beautiful, not very young, without any human responsibility, and very tempting.

Shakespeare at the Movies

From the Guardian Online I read an article titled The Bard on screen --
"Nearly 700 films and TV productions have taken their stories from Shakespeare, according to the Internet Movie Database - and the true figure may be much higher. The website does not distinguish between productions that keep the Bard's original texts, in English or in translation (Laurence Olivier's Henry V, Orson Welles's Othello, Grigori Kozintsev's Russian King Lear), and what are known as "genre adaptations" - westerns, gangster thrillers, melodramas, musicals, sci-fi, teen comedies and so on, which have abandoned Shakespeare's pentameters and settings, then customised his storylines and characters to fit their own conventions."

The article continues by summarizing the range and commercial success of both adaptations and original-text Shakespeare films, of which the most successful is Franco Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet.

A book titled 100 Shakespeare Films, by Daniel Rosenthal, will be published by the British Film Institute on April 16 (not yet listed in -- but they list a previous book on Shakespeare films from 2001, see image at right).

I'm putting this book on my list: I would like to see more good Shakespeare films. For example, I'd like to re-view the Kurosawa films of Samurais as King Lear and MacBeth. Evidently I've barely scratched the surface!

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Cherry Blossoms in Washington, D.C.

For the first time in many trips to Washington, our timing corresponded to the blossoming cherry trees around the Tidal Basin. The Jefferson Memorial is a beautiful white marble building that perfectly sets off the delicate colors of the blossoms. We walked all the way around the basin, stopping to see three memorials: to Jefferson, George Mason, and Franklin D. Rooseveldt.

Here is Evelyn with George Mason:

Here is Lenny with FDR: