Everything Flows

Everything FlowsTonight’s book-with-wine discussion is about Vasily Grossman‘s novel, Everything Flows (New York Review Book, USA, 2009). It was his final work, and left unfinished at the time of his death, in 1964.

It’s not a difficult read, only 250 pages, but it isn’t easy. Readers unfamiliar with Soviet history, particularly the Stalin era, will not understand much of it. And it’s hardly a cheerful work. Not that everything Russian is a slit-your-wrist work, but it’s certainly Dostoevsky-like in its darkness.

Grossman was a Soviet war correspondent during WWII and travelled with the Red Army through Moscow, Stalingrad, Kursk then into Eastern Europe, and finally Germany, where he covered the Battle for Berlin. He was the top war correspondent of the USSR and his articles were collected and translated in a 2006 book, A Writer at War. His pieces offer a very personal look at a side of the war we usually know more from military and official sources.

His mother was murdered by the Nazis in 1941, as they blitzed across the Ukraine. As a Jew, Grossman suffered Soviet racism and prejudices, increasing in the late 1940s as Stalin grew more paranoid and anti-Semitic. His artistic views were also molded by his war experiences and his ability to see the people in the carnage. He was among the first to see Treblinka and was one of the earliest to chronicle the Holocaust.

He was a good reporter and became a good novelist. He wrote honestly about what few of his contemporaries have dared write: life in Soviet Russia; the life of individuals slogging through an unrelenting system they didn’t fully understand, about their core of human will to survive. Honest, moving stuff. And for that he would become persona non grata, one among many artists whose work displeased the State.

After the war, he wrote two novels, both about the war: For a Just Cause (1952) and Life and Fate. The former was a fairly standard work for its day and was published. The latter has been compared to a modern War and Peace – it is huge, sweeping and complex. But because it was also critical of the Soviet government, and exposed some of the army’s atrocities as it advanced into enemy territory, it was too explosive for the then-Soviet censors (and the party’s chief ideologue, Mikhail Suslov). The government had it banned. Life and Fate would not be published until 1980, after his death.

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Frutiger vs Palatino

In a recent review of Sarah Hyndman’s book, Why Fonts Matter, I casually commented that,

You can no more adequately comment on the relevance and impact on the viewer of, say, Frutiger versus Palatino, without discussing the design and layout in which it is set…

FrutigerThe point of which was not to single out those two typefaces as much as to suggest the debate between how readers respond to sans-serif and serif faces (respectively).

Fruitiger is a modern, humanist sans-serif type designed by Adrian Frutiger in 1975. Palatino is a serif type designed by Hermann Zapf, in 1948, to simulate classical typefaces. I like and have used both.

PalatinoI’ve always been a staunch advocate of serif faces like Palatino for body copy in longer texts such as brochures, books, magazines. Everywhere type is dense, continuous, flowing I’ve preferred them.

Everything I’ve read has lead me to believe that serifs guide the reader better than their lack. Conventional wisdom has so dictated for centuries. Studies have supported the anecdotal conclusions.

But the two recent books I received (the other being Sarah Beier’s Reading Letters, also reviewed) are both set in sans-serif for their body. Hyndman’s is set in Franklin Gothic (designed by Morris Benton in 1902)*, and Beier’s in Ovink (designed by Beier herself, in 2011).

If type designers use what others in their field might argue is an unconventional choice, I figured I should pay attention.

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Reading Letters: Designing for Legibility

Reading Letters
The human brain is truly a remarkable machine.* We can see a bunch of lines and in that same brain turn them into an M and know it’s not a V or an N or a K or W. Yet M isn’t a ‘thing’ – it’s an abstract representation of a sound that itself has no concrete meaning outside the Mmmmm of meditation.

When you mentally assemble a bunch of other lines and sticks and squiggles, those sounds form a larger abstraction: a word: MOON. Now we have substance. And that can be used to create even larger collections of abstractions – sentences – that together we ascribe a greater meaning to: THE COW JUMPED OVER THE MOON.

That’s a perfectly clear sentence. Nonsensical, yes, but within a tiny fraction of a second, your brain built all the bits and squiggles into a structured concept that made some sort of sense. You can read it; every word is clear and expresses something you can picture. That’s a remarkable feat of cognition that borders on magical.

But change just one letter, replace, say an O with an R and THE COW JUMPED OVER THE MORN seems much stranger, more nonsensical. Harder to imagine. THE COW JUMPED OVER THE MOOT or THE MOAN even more so. Familiarity helped us build the first; the unfamiliar – just one letter changed – made us stop and think about it. But how is it that MOON, MORN and MOOT are clear to us, even when the sentence isn’t logical, but assemblies like REET, CABIT, DRAMFIBBLE aren’t?

What about acrasial, brabeum, crocitation? Nidifice, ovablastic, patration? Saburrate, tecnolatry, yelve? Those are actually all real words, once in use, but long since fallen from use, forgotten and mostly lost to the language.

You can read these words, you can pronounce them. They obey the rules of our language construction – unlike, say pkbrynzg or tlmrifvy – but they still don’t make sense. Your brain has no familiarity, no mental foothold that lets you make sense of them because they don’t conform.

But a lost word like snobographer you can break into bits – snob and grapher – and probably work out that it means someone who writes about snobs, even if you’ve never seen the word previously. It has familiar bits.

Sophie Beier‘s 2012 book, Reading letters: Designing for Legibility is almost the polar opposite of Sarah Hyndman’s book, reviewed last week. She looks at those little sticks and lines and squiggles and explores all the science and art behind how we make abstract symbols into meaning.

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Why Fonts Matter

Why Fonts Matter
The first problem I have when receiving a new book on typography is that I spend far too much time looking up the typefaces described or sampled therein, and searching for them online, instead of reading. Then I start looking at (and critiquing) the typefaces chosen for the book itself. It’s a trees-not-the-forest kind of wonderment that comes over me.

As I am wont to do, I sit back on my deck in the evening sun, glass of wine in hand, and a large pile of previously-purchased typography books beside me, so I can make the introductions. Probably not necessary, since I suspect they already know one another. But it’s comforting to have them all together.

That’s just my own obsession with type and typography. There are, those peccadilloes aside, many great delights to be had in receiving a new book about typography. To open a page filled with characters, colours, shapes… it’s almost a childish joy. I trust some of you know that emotion, already. Sometimes I think talking about type is a bit like talking about Zen. From the outside, it seems suspiciously like mumbo jumbo that only the insiders can understand. But stick with me, grasshopper.*

Sarah Hyndman’s book, and the latest in my collection, Why Fonts Matter, doesn’t frame itself by asking if they matter. Of course they do. What she wants to tell is is how they matter, how they affect us. How they make us feel. How they direct us to buying, eating, music and other daily choices. And, of course, how they communicate their verbal and non-verbal messages. Very Mcluhanistic, the message and the medium and all that. And that’s in great part what Hyndman wants to tell us.

And like the Zen master’s stick thwacking sharply over the novice’s shoulders to spur awareness (and rouse us from sleep), Hyndman startles and awakens us. In a pleasant way, of course. A gentle stick. It’s meant as an interactive journey, not a lecture. And she has a light touch, and a mildly sardonic humour, too.

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322 reasons why we’re better off with PowerStream

$322. More. Every year.

$322. That’s how much MORE the average consumer household using 750 kW/month pays a year when connected to Hydro One, compared to the same household connected to Collus PowerStream. That means YOU will pay that much more, thanks to Collingwood Council. The Block, in particular.

And it could be higher, if you have, say, electrical heat, air conditioning, electrical stove or dryer, or a family. A lot higher.*

This council has been in secret negotiations to sell our utility to Hydro One, knowing that your bills will skyrocket. Not only will it mean higher utility bills, but you have no input into the fate of the utility YOU own. Input is not being allowed by the Most Secretive Council Ever.

In fact, they have only ever discussed our utility and selling it behind closed doors this term. Dozens of times. Until last week, of course, when they publicly announced their plan to sell it. Anyone else see this as corruption and breach of public trust?

Last term, when half of our ownership in Collus was sold to PowerStream, it was all done in public, with public input. How quickly things changed under The Block.

If you’re a senior or otherwise living on a fixed income or with typically low wages, you’ll need to come up with at least $26.80 a month more, or you’ll have to cut it from somewhere else. Like your food. Medicine. Clothes. Or heating in winter.

Plus don’t forget to add in the entirely unnecessary but burdensome tax increases this council has already put through TWICE this term. All part of The Block’s war on seniors.

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A cunning plan

Mike PenceI see Donald Trump’s plan to utterly eviscerate the Republican Party is working very well. Just look who he picked as his running mate: possibly the only white man more bigoted, vile, close-minded, racist and misogynistic than the passel of presidential candidates Trump bested earlier.* Brilliant.

You couldn’t do more than that to alienate the remaining American intelligensia, the moderates, the women, the Latinos, the blacks, the Jews, the Muslims, the gays… now pretty much every social, racial, educational and cultural group has an opportunity to be offended by Trump and his potential Veep all at once.

Now, although pretty much everyone with an IQ over 60 has long since left the party, the remainder are gathering together in Cleveland. Imagine a whole mob of America’s most illiterate, racist, gun-toting, fanatically religious wingnuts stuffed into a stadium where they can feed off each other’s ignorance and hatred.

I expect once it’s packed, Trump will have it sealed, pumped with liquid nitrogen and everyone inside frozen. It will then become a museum of American bigotry. What other choices does he have?

Trump has managed to squeeze out support from two of the top GOP weasels – Mitch Connell and Paul Ryan, whose allegiance to the NRA rises far above anything they feel for the American people or state. Tepid support, true, but if these two sellouts say yea, then you know the NRA is saying yea, too. After all, puppets only dance to the pull of the strings.

Along the way he managed to remove the spine from presidential hopefuls Rick Perry and Ben Carson and get them to stand up and in Soviet-show-trial style, endorse him at the convention. A masterpiece of showmanship that even Stalin couldn’t have bettered. Genius.

All Trump needs now is uber-oleaginous Ted Cruz to endorse him, and his trap has sprung. Get Cruz and all the rest of the top sleaze to Cleveland and zzzzzzap! They’ll all be frozen in ice for all time. And good riddance, too.

Sadly, both of the former Bush presidents will be sitting out this event. One suspects George W wanted to attend, but is still trying to figure out how to work his GPS…
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Thick as a brick

You really have to watch Rogers’ coverage of Collingwood Council, July 11, 2016. Start around 2:08:00. That’s when the discussion about the upgrades to the brick at the Collingwood Curling Club begins.

Another comedic episode full of zany antics and madcap mayhem brought to you by The Block. Be prepared to howl with laughter as Councillor Ecclestone attempts to justify hiding public information from view.

Let’s pause for a moment to remind readers that these upgrades and repairs were approved last term, in 2014 and should have been completed by now. But this council and administration dropped the ball for almost two years.

The former building department official who oversaw the project when it was supposed to go ahead provided a report on the status of the building and proposed repairs in early 2015. The administration sat on the report while the snooze button kept being hit until mid-2016. But I digress.*

Finally, the work got approval to go ahead, two years after it was first proposed and approved. But better late than never, eh? Who cares if costs have risen in the interim? It’s only taxpayer dollars! There’s millions of them where they came from!

Push ahead in the video to 2:09:45. That’s when Councillor Ecclestone speaks. Be prepared to drop your jaw and guffaw aloud. He says:

In the future, I don’t think we should be making public the 15 percent, uh, contingency. I think that it, you know, doesn’t need to get out there, cause I think once you put that in there, the company then can, fffff (sic), go for the full bundle, right? So I’m just thinking that in the future we should just keep that, uh, um, not announce it to the public.

Is he kidding? Hide information from the public in an open bidding process? This is someone who claims to have been the “head of council” previously. Yet here he appears thicker than the brickwork about to be repaired.**

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Fake Ark, Fake Religion

Fairy Tale ArkWell, it finally opened: the $100 million-dollar Noah’s Ark theme park in Kentucky that features an allegedly life-size model of the mythological boat described in the Bible. It’s 510 feet (155.4m) long, 85 feet (26m) wide, more than three storeys (51 feet) tall, uses 3.1 million board-feet of lumber, steel and other modern materials, on a base of rebar-reinforced concrete.*

The only two materials specifically mentioned in the Biblical tale are gopher wood and pitch. But this reconstruction doesn’t use gopher wood or pitch – curiously, both are conspicuous in their absence in this modern remaking. In fact, pitch isn’t even mentioned in the website about the theme park. Details, schmeetails…

It was built using a large crew equipped with modern cranes and tools based on diesel and electrical power. Without which, a bronze-age farmer would have had a tough time building something of this scale, let alone go to Australia and New Zealand and the Antarctic and Tibet and Mongolia and Rhodesia to collect the birds and animals he was supposed to carry.

The ark under construction

Now if you know the story in Genesis, the ark wasn’t supposed to go cruising, just float. It didn’t have sails. As it points out on the Friendly Atheist blog, Ham’s ark is completely wrong in its design and purpose:

That implies that it was designed to go somewhere with a purpose. Cruise ship. Cargo ship. War ship. But Noah’s Ark wasn’t a ship. Noah had one job — to make sure the Ark floated and keep everyone on it alive. His Ark didn’t have propulsion, engines, or sails. It just had to float.
That means what Noah built was a barge. It was made to simply hold something while an external source pushed it around… what “launch” is he talking about? In the Genesis story, the Ark was built and then floated as the water rose. It was never “launched” as we would see of ships today… Also, as far as a “landing,” who cares? If Noah successfully guided the Ark to the point where he could “land,” the method of doing it would have been irrelevant since the Flood was over and everyone survived.

So basically, the look, design and construction of this thing are all made up. Imaginary. Fictional. Like all the stories and myths in Genesis itself (I’ll write more about that sometime soon, but you can already guess my approach). But let’s look at the ark itself.

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A little musical Canadiana

My Own Dear CanadaAmong my collection of many (many!) vintage song books and song sheets, I have a bundle of patriotic music from WWI. I was browsing through them again this week and found several songs written and published during the war, either as songs for the soldiers (usually cheering them on to war or hoping for their safe return) or songs for those left behind to express their patriotic fervour.

I thought it might be appropriate to show some of them to readers as we approach our 150th national birthday, in 2017.

Song NationalHere are six covers from Canadian music of that era. If you click on the thumbnails, to the right, they should open to larger scans of the covers.

I have not scanned the interiors, but if you’re interested in the music itself, please contact me. All are arranged for piano. I may have more in the collection I overlooked, and if I find more, I will either post them as updates or in the comments. If you are interested in obtaining these, or other vintage sheet music I might have, let me know.
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The raison d’etre

Maxine“Why do you do it?” A voice asked me, momentarily distracting my attention from deciding between the firm and silky tofu in the grocery store. I looked up to find a woman close to my own age in front of me. Well, perhaps she was a teensy bit older by about 20 years, but once you cross 60, age differences between seniors seem smaller. To my aging eyes, at least.

I couldn’t easily disengage since her cart was wedged up against mine, and because I needed to find my way to the sweet potatoes across the aisle, I responded, hoping to soon untangle without appearing rude.

“Why do I do what?” Always answer a question with a question, or so I was raised. Well, maybe not raised. I think I read about that tactic in a book. I was raised to be seen and not heard, which I suppose is why I’m a writer not a singer. My parents heard me sing once, and that ended my musical career pretty toot sweet.

“Write those things. Online. You know, all those nasty things about council. Why do you do it?” I didn’t think explaining about my writer-versus-singer upbringing would satisfy her, so I took another direction.

“Well, first I don’t think they’re always nasty. Sometimes they’re funny. I hope. You can never tell about humour. Didn’t any of them amuse you, at least a little?”

“I don’t read them all. Not online. I don’t have a computer,” she replied.

“Well then how do you know about them?” I asked in my best Sherlockian fashion.

“My son prints them out and brings them to me. Not all of them. Just the ones he wants me to read. The ones about the people I voted for. The nasty ones.”

Well so much for my career as a satirist, and cultural commentator. Didn’t really connect if no one read it. Maybe I could take up singing after all. You know, busk downtown. With a ukulele. But I couldn’t start my new career until this new critic finished with me. So I responded.

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We’re Screwed. Royally.

Screw the taxpayer!By now you know what I’ve been warning you about all along: Council is selling our public electrical utility. After harassing, bullying and hectoring our utility staff, they decided to simply get rid of a 150-year-old public institution that has served this town so well all this time. We’re screwed.

And you’ve had how much input on this crucial issue? Right: exactly none. And council has no intention of giving the public a say. This is a fait accompli: an autocratic act so despicable that words fail me. These people are truly evil in the fullest sense of that word. Democracy be damned, say The Block. They will do what they want regardless of the damage it does to you, to staff, to our reputation and relationships.

Everything about our utility has been done in secret, behind closed doors, with administrative staff skulking in the shadows, pulling the strings while the Bobbleheads nod in agreement to what they’re told. Never once thinking for themselves, they’ve swallowed the corporate hook, line and sinker. But that line has been tainted with untruth.

This merely ices the cake of the unmitigated disaster this term has proven. Secrecy, lies, corruption, conniving, destruction, vendettas and personal agendas. That’s the sum total of council to date. What a legacy.

And it will get worse. Much, much worse. The screwing of the taxpayer will continue until we can elect an group that isn’t ethically challenged, in their place. Collingwood deserves much better.

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Transcendance

TranscendenceIt’s not surprising that AI replaced the biological form in the popular Frankenstein monster trope. In fact the smart-evil-machine scenario has been done so often this past decade or so that I’m more surprised any film writer or director can manage to give it some semblance of uniqueness that differs it from all the others.

Transcendence tries, tries very hard and almost makes it. But the brass ring remains out of reach. Still, it’s worth watching if you’re a scifi buff because, well, it’s scifi.* And even bad scifi is better than no scifi at all. Well, maybe not the Transformer franchise, but pretty much the rest of it.

More than that, while it doesn’t tread a lot of new ground, it does use a lot of nifty sets and special effects, even if the topic isn’t all that new.

The evil robot has been with us in film for a very long time. Fritz Lang’s 1927 film, Metropolis was the first to portray a sentient robot (the ‘Maschinenmensch’). That robot was created to “resurrect” the creator’s former lover. In Transcendence, the character of Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp) is similarly “resurrected” but in virtual space: inside a computer. And of course he/it evolves/develops within those confines to something more than human.

Angry non-techies storm the castle with pitchforks and burn the whole place down. Well, okay it’s an underground data centre in the desert and they use artillery, but it’s basically the same thing. It’s a monster movie with CGI lipstick. And better yet, it’s in the $8 bin (with both Blu-Ray and DVD editions in the case…) at Wal Mart. But be prepared to question the premise. And a lot more.
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Reputation, reputation, reputation

Bad reputationReal estate agents and retaillers have a saying: Location, location, location. But for politicians that can be amended to read: Reputation, reputation, reputation. The reputation of the whole community hinges on that of its politicians. After all, the tree is known by its fruit.

Remember the Rob Ford scandals? Talk show hosts around the world used them to turn Toronto into a jokefest. People who had never visited, or never even heard of Toronto before knew about it through Rob Ford’s antics. And although it tarnished Toronto, Ford acted as if it didn’t matter. As Cicero wrote in On Obligations (De Officiis; also known as On Duties):

To disregard what the world thinks of us is not only arrogant but utterly shameless.

But centuries before Cicero, the Greek philosopher Isocrates wrote:

Guard yourself against accusations, even if they are false; for the multitude are ignorant of the truth and look only to reputation. In all things resolve to act as though the whole world would see what you do; for even if you conceal your deeds for the moment, later you will be found out. But most of all will you have the respect of men, if you are seen to avoid doing things which you would blame others for doing.

So this reputation thing is hardly new. We’ve long known that doing the right things builds it, doing the wrong things destroys it.  In Chapter 21 of The Prince, more than 500 years ago, Niccolo Machiavelli wrote:

“Nothing makes a prince so well esteemed as undertaking great enterprises and setting a fine example”

He understood that reputation was precious, and that to build it, the ruler needed to set a good example. In Chapter 8, he criticized the ancient Sicilian leader, Agathocles – not for deceiving, then murdering, the citizens, but because his actions stained his reputation:

“It cannot be called skill to slay fellow-citizens, to betray friends, to be without faith, without mercy, without moral obligation. Such methods may gain empire, but not glory… his barbarous cruelty and inhumanity… do not permit him to be celebrated among the most excellent men.”

Betrayal, lacking a moral compass, faithless, cruel… that sounds all too familiar in our local politics.

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Type amen, click like and share…

Phising postI created what proved an interesting discussion on Facebook recently when I threatened to ‘unfriend’ anyone who continued to out those obnoxious ‘type amen and share’ posts on their timelines.

Now if you’re a FB user, you have seen these things endless times. They’re as common as the “50% will get this math question wrong” and “you won’t believe what happened next!” or the “Nine out of ten can’t answer these questions” posts. Most of these are simply trolling posts that lead to pages replete with clickbait, scams and data collection bots.

Then there are those dreary click-farming posts. Press K and hit like to see the magic image. Type your age and click like to see your reward. I’ll bet she can’t get 1,000 likes. or 10,000. Or 100,000. It’s all about gathering the clicks (and figuring out which FB accounts are active so you can be targetted for advertising more easily). While they are initially posted by hackers or marketers, it’s the gullible who spread them around.

And don’t get me started on the hoaxes. Mark Zuckerberg giving away millions. Facebook is making all your posts public so share this legal disclaimer. All codswallop and easily debunked with a couple of quick searches.

As if anyone would take the time. It’s simpler to turn the brain off, click like and share. Spread the stupidity.

And of course we have the usual dreck of cute kitten and puppy posts, but they’re merely trite compared to the often dangerous stuff that leads to a phishing site.

It’s the same with the Jesus-amen-blessing-prayer posts. They’re created by hackers preying on your gullibility, not some religious message from your god. Do you really think Jesus has a Facebook account and reads your timeline? Stop spreading this crap.

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Power, ambition, backstabbing

Hollow CrownPower grabs. Backstabbing. Lust. Ambition. Conniving. Hypocrisy. A weak but well-meaning ruler. A grasping second in command who viciously usurps power. A bureaucrat jealous of the nobles, jockeying for power and trading favours to get his way. Sleazy nobles selling their loyalty for petty trinkets. A cast of despicable, grasping characters all out for themselves, oblivious of the cost of their machinations on the common people, and willing to tread on anyone who gets in their way. Machiavellian plots and secret meetings. The destruction of state institutions and facilities. Heads rolling.

Collingwood Council? No: Shakespeare’s three-part extravaganza, Henry VI. Although you have to admit I had you there, since the resemblance seems so uncanny. A Readers’ Guide to Shakespeare (ed. Joseph Rosenblum) notes of part III:

Hatred ambition and greed are keynotes, while duty, trust, tradition and self-restraint are increasingly rare.

Boy, doesn’t that sound just like Collingwood Council? In Part I, Richard Plantagenet says of the recently deceased Mortimer that he was, “Choked with ambition of the meaner sort.” Sure sounds to me like someone – or ones – we know at the council table. And this description of Henry Beaufort, the Bishop of Winchester (from part I), also has undeniable echoes in a local personality (or maybe personalities…):

Winchester is portrayed as a corrupt, power-hungry bishop who buys his elevation to cardinal and who seeks to overthrow the rightful, secular authority of the Protector.

But of course, it’s not about them. The Protector is the Duke of Gloucester, by the way (okay, you already knew that…).

Henry VI forms two of the three movies in the latest Hollow Crown series, presented by the BBC. Two, you say? I thought there were three parts… well, yes there are, but the directors pruned away some of the slower bits and condensed the whole thing into two parts. Probably a wise move; the latter two parts are considered great plays, but the first (actually written later than the first two) is considered on of the Bard’s weaker efforts. But recent revivals of the trilogy, no matter how long, have drawn praise.
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