Shakespeare Changed Everything

Nat Post reviewI have been reading an entertaining little book called How Shakespeare Changed Everything, which, as the title suggests, is about the pervasive influence the Bard has had on pretty much everything in our lives ever since he started putting quill to paper.

Stephen Marche’s book was described in the NatPost as a, “sprightly, erudite sampling of Shakespeare’s influence on absolutely everything.” Reviewer Robert Cushman isn’t always that laudatory about all of Marche’s claims, however. He concludes the book is full of,

…rash generalizations balanced by elegant insights. Rightly, he links Shakespeare’s frankness about sex to our own; wrongly, he asserts that all love poetry before Shakespearean had been Petrarchan idealism. In fact, Shakespeare’s cheerful obscenity is also typical of his fellow playwrights, of his near-contemporary John Donne, and even of a gentle sonneteering predecessor like Sir Thomas Wyatt. And besides, the Shakespeare sonnet he actually quotes (“the expense of spirit in a waste of shame”), though certainly frank, is anything but celebratory. On the other hand, he can cut to the heart of what makes Shakespeare supreme: his “preternatural ability to match the sound of a word to its sense”; that “no one produces characters with more individuality of language than Shakespeare”; that he “violates the idea that life can be fully understood.”

Well, don’t let either the criticism or the possibility of hyperbolic claims deter you. It’s a fun book that anyone – not just Shakespeare scholars – can read and enjoy. And like most books about the Bard, it adds to the growing corpus of ideas and opinions about Shakespeare’s influence and impact.

Whether you agree with Marche’s or Cushman’s assessment, no one can argue that Shakespeare didn’t influence – and continues to influence – the world.

His longevity is remarkable. None of his contemporaries get more than mild interest today, and few if any are the subject of books, university courses or lectures. I don’t know of anyone who reads Fletcher or Middleton or even Jonson for pleasure these days, but many – myself included – still read Shakespeare for the simple enjoyment of it.

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Julius Caesar: Best of the Bard?

Julius CaesarFor my money, Julius Caesar is simply Billy Shakespeare’s best ever play. I mean, what’s not to like in it? It has some stonking great speeches in it – including one of his top five ever (Marc Antony’s “Friends, Romans, countrymen….”) as well as a passel of memorable lines you can quote at parties (Who among my readers hasn’t passed off a quick “Cry havoc, and let slip the dogs of war…” just for effect?).

Plus it has a conspiracy, a murder, a riot, a battle, and a couple of suicides to gussy up the action. Treachery, betrayal, loyalty, raw ambition, backstabbing, front-stabbing, ghosts… really: what’s not to like?

It’s short and brisk, so it can be read in an evening and the plot followed easily enough, even by a non-academic. It’s bereft of the knotty love-action that makes you scratch your head and wonder which twin is onstage and why. WS eschewed his usual love for complicated metaphors, and hidden meanings when writing it, so almost anyone can understand it.

And on top of that, it’s all about politics and Billy the Bard was in his best game when writing about politics. Like I said, what’s not to like?

And then there’s the whole mess of subtext about manliness and masculinity, about friendship and loyalty, about power, about the conflict between reason and passion, about the nature of the state and the greater good, and whether it’s okay to kill someone for a Big Reason like saving the republic.

Like every other Shakespearean play, it’s about the complexity of being human and interacting with other conflicted humans. The issues, the insights, the internal tug-of-war over ethics and morals, the passions and lusts – they were the same in his day as they are in ours, and he makes them accessible by weaving them into great stories. That’s why the Bard is still so relevant today.

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Translating Montaigne

MontaigneWith two printed versions of Montaigne’s essays (translations by Donald Frame and M. A. Screech) and a couple of online editions available to me, I thought I might offer some examples of how individual translations have captured Montaigne’s writing and let you judge which you think is clearer and crisper for reading today.

I chose, somewhat at random, some lines from Book 1, Essay 50: Of Democritus and Heraclitus. It’s a reasonably short piece. I will give it in its entirety once, then offer selected sentences as marked in bold, below, from other translations for comparison. (You can read some commentary on this essay here).

First up: William Hazlitt’s 1877 updating of Charles Cotton’s 1685 translation (public domain, available on Gutenberg.org). Here is the entire essay:

The judgment is an utensil proper for all subjects, and will have an oar in everything: which is the reason, that in these Essays I take hold of all occasions where, though it happen to be a subject I do not very well understand, I try, however, sounding it at a distance, and finding it too deep for my stature, I keep me on the shore; and this knowledge that a man can proceed no further, is one effect of its virtue, yes, one of those of which it is most proud. One while in an idle and frivolous subject, I try to find out matter whereof to compose a body, and then to prop and support it; another while, I employ it in a noble subject, one that has been tossed and tumbled by a thousand hands, wherein a man can scarce possibly introduce anything of his own, the way being so beaten on every side that he must of necessity walk in the steps of another: in such a case, ’tis the work of the judgment to take the way that seems best, and of a thousand paths, to determine that this or that is the best. I leave the choice of my arguments to fortune, and take that she first presents to me; they are all alike to me, I never design to go through any of them; for I never see all of anything: neither do they who so largely promise to show it others. Of a hundred members and faces that everything has, I take one, onewhile to look it over only, another while to ripple up the skin, and sometimes to pinch it to the bones: I give a stab, not so wide but as deep as I can, and am for the most part tempted to take it in hand by some new light I discover in it. Did I know myself less, I might perhaps venture to handle something or other to the bottom, and to be deceived in my own inability; but sprinkling here one word and there another, patterns cut from several pieces and scattered without design and without engaging myself too far, I am not responsible for them, or obliged to keep close to my subject, without varying at my own liberty and pleasure, and giving up myself to doubt and uncertainty, and to my own governing method, ignorance.
All motion discovers us: the very same soul of Caesar, that made itself so conspicuous in marshalling and commanding the battle of Pharsalia, was also seen as solicitous and busy in the softer affairs of love and leisure. A man makes a judgment of a horse, not only by seeing him when he is showing off his paces, but by his very walk, nay, and by seeing him stand in the stable.
Amongst the functions of the soul, there are some of a lower and meaner form; he who does not see her in those inferior offices as well as in those of nobler note, never fully discovers her; and, peradventure, she is best shown where she moves her simpler pace. The winds of passions take most hold of her in her highest flights; and the rather by reason that she wholly applies herself to, and exercises her whole virtue upon, every particular subject, and never handles more than one thing at a time, and that not according to it, but according to herself. Things in respect to themselves have, peradventure, their weight, measures, and conditions; but when we once take them into us, the soul forms them as she pleases. Death is terrible to Cicero, coveted by Cato, indifferent to Socrates. Health, conscience, authority, knowledge, riches, beauty, and their contraries, all strip themselves at their entering into us, and receive a new robe, and of another fashion, from the soul; and of what colour, brown, bright, green, dark, and of what quality, sharp, sweet, deep, or superficial, as best pleases each of them, for they are not agreed upon any common standard of forms, rules, or proceedings; every one is a queen in her own dominions. Let us, therefore, no more excuse ourselves upon the external qualities of things; it belongs to us to give ourselves an account of them. Our good or ill has no other dependence but on ourselves. ‘Tis there that our offerings and our vows are due, and not to fortune she has no power over our manners; on the contrary, they draw and make her follow in their train, and cast her in their own mould. Why should not I judge of Alexander at table, ranting and drinking at the prodigious rate he sometimes used to do?
Or, if he played at chess? what string of his soul was not touched by this idle and childish game? I hate and avoid it, because it is not play enough, that it is too grave and serious a diversion, and I am ashamed to lay out as much thought and study upon it as would serve to much better uses. He did not more pump his brains about his glorious expedition into the Indies, nor than another in unravelling a passage upon which depends the safety of mankind. To what a degree does this ridiculous diversion molest the soul, when all her faculties are summoned together upon this trivial account! and how fair an opportunity she herein gives every one to know and to make a right judgment of himself? I do not more thoroughly sift myself in any other posture than this: what passion are we exempted from in it? Anger, spite, malice, impatience, and a vehement desire of getting the better in a concern wherein it were more excusable to be ambitious of being overcome; for to be eminent, to excel above the common rate in frivolous things, nowise befits a man of honour. What I say in this example may be said in all others. Every particle, every employment of man manifests him equally with any other.
Democritus and Heraclitus were two philosophers, of whom the first, finding human condition ridiculous and vain, never appeared abroad but with a jeering and laughing countenance; whereas Heraclitus commiserating that same condition of ours, appeared always with a sorrowful look, and tears in his eyes:

“Alter ridebat, quoties a limine moverat unum Protuleratque pedem; flebat contrarius alter.”
[“The one always, as often as he had stepped one pace from his threshold, laughed, the other always wept.”—Juvenal, Sat., x. 28.]
[Or, as Voltaire: “Life is a comedy to those who think; a tragedy to those who feel.” D.W.]

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Sonnet 103

Alack! what poverty my Muse brings forth,

So begins Shakespeare’s sonnet number 103 (I started rereading the sonnets recently because, well because it’s Shakespeare, damn it all, and what other reason would anyone need?).

It’s a sentiment I well know. The impoverished Muse thing, I mean. There are three dozen pieces in draft mode I’ve started here, then hesitated, and left incomplete. Unable to pull the threads together into a coherent tableaux because my muse is busy somewhere else. I have numerous unfinished stories, novels and even two books in progress on my hard drive. And a basement full of hardcopy of older efforts. Novels, even – several, in fact. Awful stuff, really.

I should delete them all, except that they remind me that writing is not just talent: it’s work. And maybe one day my Muse will return and kickstart me to finish them, not simply relegate them to the “chronicle of wasted time” (Sonnet 106).

True, some of it is trash: mad ramblings, naive, amateurish, even puerile. I can’t spout high literature or tell sad tales about the death of kings. For every piece of deep cogitation – be it feigned or heartfelt – there is a piece wading in the shallows of triviality. Sonnet 110:

Alas, ’tis true I have gone here and there
And made myself a motley to the view,

It’s odd: some days I could spend the whole day writing, hardly ever leaving my chair. Some days I could pen a dozen pieces on as many topics without losing vigour, darting back and forth between them without losing a single thread. Some days the words just fall into place and every one is like a brick in a well-built home. I love those days, love crafting posts with a sense of coherency and logic, writing stories and essays with consummate ease.

And other days it’s crap. Nothing works. Words collide. Thoughts clatter about like shopping carts pushed through a Wal-Mart by anxious shoppers hunting for the bargains. That’s frustrating. Annoying. Writing consumes me. Where Descartes said “I think, therefore I am,” I would have to put it as Scribo, ergo sum: “I write, therefore I am.”

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The Hollow Crown: Henry V

Battle of AgincourtAs I started to watch the last film in the Hollow Crown series, I wasn’t sure whether Tom Hiddleston was up to playing the iconic role in Shakespeare’s most patriotic (and jingoistic) play.

I thought Hiddleston’s Prince Hal in Henry IV had just a little too much of Loki – and maybe the bully – in it for me to see him as a majestic king. But I was quickly won over. Whether the movie itself was good Shakespeare is another question.

First a note on the lighting and sets: in Richard II, it was all light, bright and colour (until the end, where Richard’s fall is marked by darker sets and shadows). Henry IV P1 and P2 were both shot in muted tones: greys, blacks, dark browns, with shadowy sets and little colour outstanding. Henry V is a mix of the two, more conventionally lit.

The play contains the story of Henry’s challenge to France – claiming he is the true king of France and demanding King Charles hand the crown over. When the French say no, Henry invades with an army of roughly 12,000. He has some initial successes, including the siege of Harfleur. Then the campaign becomes a weary march to safety where soldiers suffered more from illness and dysentery than from the enemy. Henry’s men set out for Calais – at that time an English-held city – with only 9,000 of his original besieging force (some sources say he had fewer men – 7,000). More would be lost on the march.

The campaign culminates in the remarkable victory at Agincourt, where a bedraggled and dispirited English force defeated a much larger French one. It is the highlight of the play. Or should be.

Who can forget Kenneth Branagh making the famous and inspirational  “band of brothers” speech to the army on the eve of the battle? Yet in the Hollow Crown, Henry makes it privately to his captains, not the massed army:

Hiddleston’s quiet speech is, to me, the more emotional and personal compared to Branagh’s loud and histrionic rendering. But how does this rouse the army’s spirits? Well, maybe Henry isn’t concerned about the soldiers: it’s the nobles he’s courting here, the leaders he needs to rally the men when they are hard pressed.

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