11/14/13

Coriolanus on Film


CoriolanusCoriolanus is a tough play, full of politics and angry people and shouting mobs. It has no comic relief, no jesters, no romance and no real heroes. No great soliloquies, unsympathetic characters, uncomfortable double dealing, treachery and plotting. No powerful subplot as a counterpoint. Pride, arrogance, and power dominate.

Coriolanus himself is empty, driven, bereft of the great passions that animate Shakespeare’s other main protagonists.

Except the passion for revenge, which comes upon him halfway through the play. Before that, he seems an automaton, as fixed in his role as an aristocrat and soldier as Tsar Nicholas was, with little softening humanity to give the audience something to like. And like as wedded to his fate as the Tsar.

Harold Bloom wrote:

Shakespeare subtly does not offer us any acceptable alternatives to Coriolanus’s sense of honor, even as we are shown how limited and crippling that sense becomes when it is challenged. The hero’s mother, his friends, and his enemies, both Roman and Volscian, move us to no sympathy whatsoever.

And yet… even if there’s not much noble in Caius Martius, he has honour and enough incipient tragedy about him that we feel keen interest in his story. He is, if nothing else, true to himself, with no apparent ulterior motives or hidden agendas to guide his deeds or words. He’s a soldier; he does his job without questioning.

Scholars aren’t even sure if the play was performed during Shakespeare’s lifetime. But after the Restoration, various directors dug it up and molded the play to fit some contemporary political event or cause. Even today, it’s considered popular as a symbolic political work, easily adapted to modern views.

Which is what Ralph Fiennes does well in his 2011 film of the play. Fiennes both directs and acts the central role, brilliantly in both cases.

I’m always leery of Shakespeare in modern clothes. It sometimes seems artificial and contrived to have modern-day characters strutting around speaking 16th century lines. But not in this Coriolanus. The stagecraft is remarkable, and the date language seems made fit for the setting. I was glued to the screen as it unfolded, and stuck to it for the entire two hours. The pacing is brisk, with plenty of action and emotion. It feels modern, relevant.

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11/6/13

The Fretful Porpentine


Fretful porpentineLike quills upon the fretful porpentine. That phrase just makes the modern reader stop and wonder. What, you ask yourself, is a porpentine? And why is it fretful?

We never learn, although later interpreters would knowingly tell us a porpentine is a porcupine in today’s argot. Porcupine itself dervices from the Old or Middle French term, “porc espin” or spined pig. Which it isn’t – it’s a rodent*

It’s an old word, encountered earlier as “purpentine” in 1589, but hardly a common word in any spelling after that, at least not in drama.**

Shakespeare wrote it as porpentine in 1602. One seldom encounters the word between his Hamlet and the middle of the 20th century, when it reappears in The Amazing Vacation, a children’s fantasy novel written in 1956 by Dan Wickenden. It also appears in P. G. Wodehouse’s 1960 novel about Bertie Wooster, Jeeves in the Offing.***

Today, of course, the word porpentine is frequently paired with the adjective fretful on may online sites and blogs. In more common use is the phrase “hair stand on end,” penned in the same verse of Hamlet. Phrases.org.uk tells us of that:

The allusion of makes your hair stand on end is to the actual sensation of hairs, especially those on the neck, standing upright when the skin contracts due to cold or to fear. This is otherwise known as ‘goose-flesh’ and the condition is, or rather was, known by the entirely splendid word horripilation. This was defined by Thomas Blount in his equally splendidly named book Glossographia, or a dictionary interpreting such hard words as are now used, 1656.

Horripilation. Love that word. We owe a lot to Shakespeare and the number of phrases of his we still write and speak today is truly astounding.

The Australian News commented on the longevity of Shakespearean phrases more than 400 years later:

Then there is the English language. The debt it owes to Shakespeare (and the slightly later King James Version of the Bible) is incalculable. No English speaker with any pretensions to culture (above that of phone texting or advertising brochures) can avoid using words or expressions that originated with the Bard of Avon. Not bad going for the son of a draper.

Porpentine isn’t one of Shakespeare’s many neologisms, but rather a nonce word: “a linguistic form which a speaker consciously invents or accidentally does on a single occasion.” Or in this situation, a word used rarely (but not singly). Perhaps it’s simply his unique spelling of purpentine.

Shakespeare was, regardless, an unprecedented source of neologisms and nonce words. According to the Oxford Dictionary, some 2,200 words first appear in writing in Shakespeare’s works, and linguist David Crystal says he invented about 1,700 of them. These are aside from the phrases mentioned above.

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10/28/13

The Circuitous Path from Bulge to Budget


If tinkers may have leave to live,
And bear the sow-skin budget,
Then my account I well may, give,
And in the stocks avouch it.
Autolycus in The Winter’s Tale,  Act IV, Sc. III, Shakespeare

These lines got me thinking about the town’s finances. Sow-skin budget? What does that mean? And how does that relate to the financial plan for the coming year staff is preparing for council’s review? I did some reading (of course…).

In Shakespeare’s time, the online etymological dictionary tells us the word budget meant something quite different:*

“leather pouch,” from Middle French bougette, diminutive of Old French bouge “leather bag, wallet, pouch,” from Latin bulga “leather bag,” of Gaulish origin (cf. Old Irish bolg “bag,” Breton bolc’h “flax pod”), from PIE *bhelgh- (see belly (n.)). Modern financial meaning (1733) is from notion of treasury minister keeping his fiscal plans in a wallet. Another 18c. transferred sense was “bundle of news,” hence the use of the word as the title of some newspapers.

The use of budget as a verb comes from much later – 1884. But for the Bard, a budget was a leather purse (or pouch or wallet). The annual budget is also a fairly new invention, as the Telegraph tells us:

It was not until the early 18th century that a version of the annual Budget emerged. The origins of the word Budget lie in the term “bougette” – a wallet in which documents or money could be kept. While at first referring only to the Chancellor’s annual speech on the country’s finances, the word quickly became used for any financial statement or plan…
Budget Day has historically been held during Spring because the collection of the Land Tax took place in April, and much of the country’s wealth derived from agriculture.

There’s a great description on World Wide Words of the convoluted path the word took to get to today’s usage:

Its first meaning in English indeed was “pouch, wallet, bag”, and followed its French original in usually implying something made of leather…
By the end of the sixteenth century, the word could refer to the contents of one’s budget as well as to the container itself. People frequently used this in the figurative sense of a bundle of news, or of a long letter full of news, and the word formed part of the name of several defunct British newspapers, such as the Pall Mall Budget…
The connection with finance appeared first only in 1733, as the result of a scurrilous pamphlet entitled The Budget Opened, an attack directed at Sir Robert Walpole… It probably also echoed the idiom to open one’s budget, “to speak one’s mind”, which was current then and continued to be so down into Victorian times…

Marina Orlova, the entertaining and pulchritudinous word lady at Hot for Words.com, gives us a more amusing etymology in the Youtube video at the top of this post. Who says learning has to be dull?

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07/9/13

Troilus and Cressida


Telegraph UKI’ve always found Troilus and Cressida a difficult play. The characters all seem jaded, cynical, opportunistic, stuffily sanctimonious, lecherous or simply underhanded. Some are merely unpleasant, others are despicable, reprehensible. All seem self-serving, more concerned with their own gains and goals than that of the greater war around them.

It’s difficult to understand why it was listed as a “comedy” (although oddly placed in the folio, between the histories and tragedies).

Even Harold Bloom calls it “difficult” and “elitist” (although he later qualifies it as Shakespeare’s “most sophisticated” and “intellectualized” play). And Joyce Carol Oates called it, “…that most vexing and ambiguous of Shakespeare’s plays.”

UK reviewer, Charles Spencer, wrote of a 2008 production,

This is surely the bleakest, nastiest and most nihilistic of all Shakespeare’s plays… The whole drama is obsessed with disease and bad faith. The cynicism, and sense of exhausted contempt, undoubtedly makes the play seem extremely modern. It also makes it hard to sit through, and a relief to escape from.

There is no real honour among warriors as we see in Shakespeare’s history plays (Hector’s single moment of gallantry, allowing the exhausted Achilles to live, is marred by his immediate desire to kill a different, unknown Greek solider, solely for his shining armour).

There’s no redemption, either, just self-serving action, personal agendas, vengeance, adolescent lust, scheming, cynicism and politics. There seems no remorse, no guilt, no shame like you might find in Hamlet or Macbeth.* Hector, when he tells Troilus,

There is a law in each well-order’d nation
To curb those raging appetites that are
Most disobedient and refractory. (2.2.180-183)

suggests that laws, not conscience, not guilt, are all that controls humanity. This is the opposite of the message in Shakespeare’s other plays, which almost always explore the effect of shame and conscience on the protagonists and their actions. Continue reading

06/29/13

The Game of the Book of Thrones


GuardianNo, it’s not about that heavyweight book series by George Martin, or the TV series based on it (or even about how you really need to read the books to understand anything that is happening in the TV series). It’s about the other throne, the porcelain one. And what books are best for reading thereon.

Yes, reading on the toilet. Don’t tell me you just sit there and stare vacantly into space.

This is important time. Those few rare minutes when we really have uninterrupted time to ourselves; quality time with our bodily functions unhampered by TV, by the phone, by people wanting to see your gas bill or water heater, by the cats or the dog, by the kids or the neighbours.*

Perfect time for reading. It’s quiet, peaceful, gently lit and often fragranced by the sweet aromas of toiletries, like a garden of lilacs and roses. There you can concentrate, focus your attention on the book at hand, while your body takes care of the autonomous business of emptying itself.

So what sort of publication is perfect for that all-too-short slice of intellectual freedom? What work can you read for a few, exhilarating minutes, put down for several hours or even a whole day, and pick up again and continue reading without having lost the thread or diminished the intellectual thrill?

Clearly, for most folks, that’s a challenge. Continuity makes it difficult to read War and Peace in five-minute snippets. From one day to the next, you won’t remember who Count Whats-his-name is or why he’s out of favour, or who’s sleeping with whom or why they’re all akimbo over the French. For this sort of book, continuity matters.

I know, I’ve tried. I’ve been inching my way through Boswell’s Life of Johnson in the downstairs bathroom for the past two years. Unsuccessfully, if keeping clear all his comments, his activities and his conversations is the point. I switched to Bruce Campbell’s autobiography, If Chins Could Kill, and found – despite the shallow, narcissistic content – it was much easier to track through Campbell’s life than Johnson’s. But I feel somehow my bathroom experienced is cheapened.

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06/18/13

More’s Speech to the Mob


Shakespeare's handwriting?The scene is a riot, on the first day of May, 1517. It would later be known as Evil May Day,or Ill May Day.

An angry mob, mostly comprised of apprentices, marched through the streets of London, their passion inflamed by a xenophobic speech made the past Easter by Dr. Bell (or Beal) at St. Paul’s Cross. Bell railed against the foreigners living in London, especially the wealthy foreign merchants and bankers. He called on all “Englishmen to cherish and defend themselves, and to hurt and grieve aliens for the common weal.”

His words spread and festered, as racism is wont to do, among the poor, the jealous, the petty, the uneducated, the unthinking and the gullible.

Within the next two weeks, mobs attacked foreigners across the city. Rumours swirled that a mass riot would occur on 1 May, during which the city would rise up and collectively “slay all aliens.” The city politicians, fearing the worst, imposed a 9 p.m. curfew the night before. That just made matters worse. Around 1,000 men gathered that night, and stormed a lockup to free several men who had been imprisoned for attacking foreigners previously. Together, they marched into the area of London where many foreigners lived.

Thomas More, at that time the under-sheriff of London, met the mob and tried to persuade them to return to their homes. But although his words calmed them for a short while, others reacted against them, and soon the mob mentality was back. The crowd raced through the city, looting foreigners’ houses. The authorities reacted slowly, but with force.

By 3 a.m. the riot ran out of steam. But the authorities had not. They arrested more than 300 of the rioters, perhaps as many as 400, and while most were later pardoned, 13 were convicted of treason and executed. John Lincoln, who had instigated Bell’s fiery speech and was the mob’s ringleader, was also executed.

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