Posts Tagged 'william shakespeare'

Assimilating strangeness.

Perhaps you saw or heard of a movie that came out earlier this year called Yesterday, directed by Danny Boyle from a script by the noted schmaltzeur Richard Curtis.

Don’t worry if you missed it. The movie never lives up to its intriguing setup, wherein an obscure singer-songwriter gets bonked into an alternate universe where the Beatles never existed. He passes their songs off as his own, playing them at local pubs where at first they’re ignored and yelled over by indifferent yobs; but before long their greatness is recognized, and our hero shoots to Beatles-scale superstardom.

I realize it’s a romantic fantasy. It wouldn’t be much of a movie if the hero just went on getting yelled over by yobs until in frustration he gave up on the Beatles and resumed strumming his own mediocre stuff.

And yet I suspect that’s how the scenario would actually play out. In a world where the Beatles never happened, where popular music carried on evolving for another half-century unaffected by their influence, who knows what strange noises people would be listening to by now.

If by good luck the hero were as charismatic as the Beatles – and, um, he isn’t – he’d still have to overcome the disadvantage of sounding hopelessly out-of-fashion.

***

In Somerset Maugham’s The Moon and Sixpence a middle-aged London stockbroker abandons his wife and children to move to Paris and take up painting. The established Bohemians sneer at Charles Strickland’s clumsy experiments, but he is as indifferent to their opinions as he is to the feelings of his discarded family and friends.

In his early years of self-exile, Strickland’s sole supporter is a fellow artist named Dirk Stroeve, who convinces a local gallery to display a few of the Englishman’s paintings. Stroeve reminds the skeptical proprietor that Monet, too, struggled at first to find buyers. The proprietor finds the parallel unsatisfactory:

“True. But there were a hundred as good painters as Monet who couldn’t sell their pictures at that time, and their pictures are worth nothing still. How can one tell? Is merit enough to bring success? Don’t believe it. Du reste, it has still to be proved that this friend of yours has merit. No-one claims it for him but Monsieur Stroeve.”

“And how, then, will you recognize merit?” asked Dirk, red in the face with anger.

“There is only one way – by success.”

Stroeve is convinced that Strickland’s genius will someday be recognized – and he turns out to be right. Merit shines through! However, Paris must be full of art lovers proclaiming this or that obscure painter a genius. Since no-one bothers to write books about the unfulfilled geniuses, only a few insiders, like the gallery owner, ever realize how many wrong predictions there are for every lucky strike.

Is it only by chance that Strickland’s paintings, and not those of one of his garret-dwelling rivals, caught the eye of some influential critic or tastemaker? Or was Stroeve right – was Strickland’s merit bound to be acknowledged eventually? We can’t see the paintings and judge for ourselves, but the narrator, when he is finally permitted by the moody artist to see them, tells us:

They seemed to me ugly, but they suggested without disclosing a secret of momentous significance. They were strangely tantalising. They gave me an emotion that I could not analyse. They said something that words were powerless to utter.

But he’s recording these impressions years afterward, by which time Strickland’s influence has diffused throughout the art world, making his aberrations commonplace, his crudities the new model of refinement. How many other ugly paintings has the narrator been strangely tantalized by, over the years, whose creators’ fame never glowed hotly enough to blast his formless impressions into solidity?

The Moon and Sixpence is loosely based on the scandalous life of Paul Gauguin. For the 1942 film version, which follows the novel fairly faithfully, the artist Dolya Goutman was hired to create Gauguinesque murals for the walls of Strickland’s cabin in Tahiti.

Here’s one patterned after Gauguin’s “Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?”

dolya goutman the moon and sixpence painting

Artwork by Dolya Goutman for The Moon and Sixpence.

We glimpse these murals for only a few moments, from the perspective of a doctor summoned to the bedside of the reclusive artist. Originally this scene was shown in Technicolor, in an otherwise black-and-white movie, to reflect the doctor’s awe and bemusement.

After Strickland’s death, his Tahitian mistress (in the movie, his legitimate wife; a detail altered to evade censorship) abides by his instructions and torches the cabin, destroying his final masterpieces. Maugham’s narrator isn’t surprised:

“He had achieved what he wanted. His life was complete. He had made a world and saw that it was good. Then, in pride and contempt, he destroyed it.”

***

Maugham’s unsettled reaction to Strickland’s paintings – “strangely tantalising” – reminded me of Harold Bloom, in his 1994 bestseller The Western Canon, attempting to single out the quality that elevates a work of literature to canonical status:

The answer, more often than not, has turned out to be strangeness, a mode of originality that either cannot be assimilated, or that so assimilates us that we cease to see it as strange.

Indulge me as I make a fool of myself attempting to argue with Harold Bloom. As I understand it, his primary contribution to the lexicon of literary criticism was “the anxiety of influence”, the theory that great writers produce great art by an “agonistic” process (“agon” being Bloom’s favourite word) of “creatively misreading” their great predecessors:

Tradition is not only a handing-down or process of benign transmission; it is also a conflict between past genius and present aspiration, in which the prize is literary survival or canonical inclusion.

So, in Bloom’s view, it’s not enough for us to pluck up some obscure minority writer of the 19th century and declare her to be canonical. The canon was built up by generations of writers grinding the works of earlier writers through their own imaginations, depositing the results in new layers of sediment which subsequent writers then sifted and rearranged.

The canon isn’t set by professors of literature, let alone by education bureaucrats; all they can do is poke around in the mound with the rest of us and argue about whether this bit of Bellow is two-thirds Dickens and one-third Whitman or the reverse.

In the above metaphor, inclusion in the mound may be decided in large part by chance. That minority writer of the 19th century might have been read more widely, might have influenced slightly younger writers, who might have passed her influence down through the years to us – but she was overlooked; maybe because people of her era were terrible racist snobs, or maybe because they just didn’t think she was very good. If a single critic had descried genius in her work, and swayed others to the same view, the mound might have taken a slightly different shape, and our notions of genius would today be subtly different.

But Bloom doesn’t care for contingency. He prefers to believe that when 17th century audiences elevated Shakespeare over his peers as the preeminent English dramatist, and that when over subsequent centuries the non-English-speaking world was gradually convinced of Shakespeare’s primacy, they were responding to some innate greatness in his writing. He dismisses as “resentment” the argument that another figure could have occupied the central place in the canon:

Clearly this line of inquiry begins to border on the fantastic; how much simpler to admit that there is a qualitative difference, a difference in kind, between Shakespeare and every other writer, even Chaucer, even Tolstoy, or whoever.

Well, maybe. As I’ve previously admitted, I have a hard time following Shakespeare at his knottiest, and am probably therefore missing a lot. But the parts that I can follow, while written in what even a dope like me can recognize as wondrously inventive English, seem nevertheless to dissipate an awful lot of their wonder in absurd plots, wearisome digressions, and prolonged anticlimaxes.

To repeat, I’m a dope. But even Harold Bloom, no dope, acknowledges the weaknesses in what he considers Shakespeare’s greatest play, King Lear:

[Edgar] maintains all his disguises long after they could have been discarded. His refusal to reveal himself to Gloucester until just before he anonymously goes forth to cut down Edmund is as curious as Shakespeare’s refusal to dramatize the scene of revelation and reconciliation between father and son. We hear Edgar’s narrative of the scene, but we are denied the scene itself.

If you haven’t read Lear in a while, Gloucester is the credulous old duffer who gets his eyes plucked out through the connivance of his wicked bastard son Edmund. His legitimate son, Edgar, a fugitive hiding in plain view as a crazy homeless guy, takes up with his father when he finds him wandering eyeless on the heath, but keeps up the crazy act even when there’s no-one else around – for no apparent reason, other than to crank up the pathos.

gloucester and edgar by h.c. selous

Edgar and Gloucester in King Lear.
Illustrator H.C. Selous, engraver Frederick Wentworth.
From The Plays of William Shakespeare, Cassell & Company, 1864-68.

At the climax of the play Edgar turns up, still incognito, and fatally wounds Edmund. His speech afterward, explaining where he’s been and what became of their father, takes up nineteen lines, concluding:

…some half-hour past, when I was arm’d:
Not sure, though hoping, of this good success,
I ask’d his blessing, and from first to last
Told him my pilgrimage: but his flaw’d heart,
Alack, too weak the conflict to support!
‘Twixt two extremes of passion, joy and grief,
Burst smilingly.

So the old man died offstage, and that’s the last we hear of him.

Bloom attempts to justify this unsatisfying development as an instance of Shakespeare’s dramatic subtlety:

Perhaps Shakespeare kept the death of Gloucester offstage so that the contrast between the dying Lear and the dying Edmund would retain all of its pungency.

Look, there may be a slight gap in talent separating me from Shakespeare – but I, too, am an author. I wrote a whole novel. It took me the better part of three years, and it was unpublishable. A year later it occurred to me that I’d failed to flesh out several vital scenes, and I devoted additional weeks to revisions. It ended up just as unpublishable as before.

As Bloom mentions, Shakespeare never bothered to proofread most of his works before publication. There are two distinct texts of King Lear, which later editors mashed together into the play we’re acquainted with. If after writing Lear Shakespeare had had nothing better to do than brood over its shortcomings, he might have been inspired to do as I did: go back in and smooth over the lumpy bits. But he was busy writing Macbeth.

Probably, Shakespeare being Shakespeare, any revisions he made would have been for the better. But suppose we were bonked into the alternate universe where, rather than dashing off thirty-seven plays, [1] heedlessly flicking the finished pages over his shoulder, Shakespeare had crafted a mere dozen, pouring every ounce of his energy and concentration into perfecting each one.

In that case he probably wouldn’t have gotten around to Lear, or for that matter Hamlet or Othello or Macbeth. He’d have been too busy polishing Romeo and Juliet to an unfathomably high gleam. Audiences hungry for fresh content would have turned to some other, less fastidious author – Ben Jonson, maybe – to supply their wants, with who knows what effects on the shape and composition of the canonical mound.

High-gleam Shakespeare might turn out to be a bit of a bummer, anyway. The absurdities and anticlimaxes that strike me as byproducts of haste may after all have been deliberate choices. Even on a second look, Shakespeare might have left them untouched, and spent his time polishing away all the hijinks and rude humour that modern audiences love.

M.

1. My Collected Works of William Shakespeare, inherited from my father, contains thirty-seven plays. Since my dad’s youth five additional titles have crept into the oeuvre: two lost plays and three previously unrecognized collaborations. This is very annoying. I have elected to ignore the latecomers.

H.C. Selous, illustrator of the Edgar and Gloucester scene above, was previously featured in my post on scary pictures in Pilgrim’s Progress. I don’t seem to have mentioned Harold Bloom before, but I have written about that other curmudgeonly defender of the Western cultural heritage, Allan “no relation” Bloom.

Shakespearean knots.

Shakespeare could be immoderately knotty.
It’s odd: he must’ve thought in knots a lot.
His thought can be unknotted – but could not he
Have sought a little less to knot his thought?

Look, I’m the first to admit that I’m lazy and not too bright. But I’m also the kind of person who reads Shakespeare for fun, and there aren’t too many of us around these days – so please, all you brainy and diligent Shakespeare nerds, indulge my unsophisticated complaint.

It’s about the knots.

Is there a technical term for them? In his book From Dawn To Decadence the French-born American scholar Jacques Barzun admitted to being less than wholly enthusiastic about Shakespeare because he too often had trouble keeping up with “the involutions of the thought” – a phrase that’s always stuck with me. Consulting the index, I see that the passage in question is actually discussing Racine:

The unprepared listener grasps the sense of the action but – as often in Shakespeare – the involutions of the thought are too fine to seize at the speed of their delivery.

Well, I haven’t read Racine. But in Shakespeare’s case, I think of them not as fancy Latinate involutions but as homely old Anglo-Saxon knots.

Every play has them. I happened to be revisiting King John recently – I remembered next to nothing of the plot, but it came back to me as I read. The biggest challenge in the early scenes, as with so much Shakespeare, is figuring out who’s related to whom. That must have been easier for Elizabethan audiences, who were attentive to the complications of royal bloodlines, and were used to nobles being referred to miscellaneously by title, house, epithet, and Christian name.

But a knowledge of the vastly ramified Plantagenet family tree is not necessary to follow King John. The story unwinds smoothly until Act II, Scene I, where Constance, the mother of young Arthur – the rightful king, as she believes, of England – hurls these curses at her mother-in-law Elinor – Arthur’s grandmother – who supports the claim of Arthur’s usurping uncle John:

I have but this to say,
That he [Arthur] is not only plagued for her [Elinor’s] sin,
But God hath made her sin and her the plague
On this removed issue, plague for her
And with her plague; her sin his injury,
Her injury the beadle to her sin,
All punish’d in the person of this child,
And all for her; a plague upon her!

See: a knot. Usually I can keep up with Shakespeare at a reading pace, with occasional delays to double back and reconnect a distantly severed subject and predicate, or to put back in order some poetically inverted adjective and noun; but a knot like this I might have to read five or ten times just to extract the basic meaning. In all honesty, I’m still not sure what “plague for her / And with her plague” means.

Elsewhere in From Dawn to Decadence Barzun lists the “tenable objections” to Shakespeare’s genius, including:

[T]he dull passages, including the puns, often obscene and prolonged; the inflated sentiments, the ludicrous images, the insoluble syntax, the contradictory details, the theatrically awkward turns, and the sheer excess where terseness or silence would be best.

He means “insoluble” in the sense of “unsolvable”, but the other meaning works too, if you picture Shakespeare’s knots as tightly compacted lumps of matter that refuse to soften up no matter how long you soak ’em.

Returning to the play, the next knot comes in Act III, Scene I, once again courtesy of Constance. She’s trying to convince the French king to do his religious duty, abandon his alliance with the excommunicated John, and switch his support to Arthur. She’s accused of arguing “not from her faith / But from her need.” She replies:

O, if thou grant my need,
Which only lives but by the death of faith,
That need must needs infer this principle,
That faith would live again by death of need.
O then, tread down my need, and faith mounts up;
Keep my need up, and faith is trodden down!

As Professor Barzun said, what characterizes passages like these is involution – ideas looping around on themselves like interlocking ouroboroses. They remind me of the logical puzzles known as sorites [1] presented by Lewis Carroll in his book Symbolic Logic:

(1) No one takes in the Times, unless he is well-educated;
(2) No hedge-hogs can read;
(3) Those who cannot read are not well-educated.

Conclusion: No hedge-hog takes in the Times.

That’s an easy one. When the propositions are multiplied, a sorites can quickly grow too cumbrous to be parsed on the fly:

(1) All the dated letters in this room are written on blue paper;
(2) None of them are in black ink, except those that are written in the third person;
(3) I have not filed any of them that I can read;
(4) None of them, that are written on one sheet, are undated;
(5) All of them, that are not crossed, are in black ink;
(6) All of them, written by Brown, begin with “Dear Sir”;
(7) All of them, written on blue paper, are filed;
(8) None of them, written on more than one sheet, are crossed;
(9) None of them, that begin with “Dear Sir”, are written in the third person.

With a little patience, these propositions can be reduced to pairs of eliminands, which cancel out, leaving the two retinands “letters written by Brown” and “letters that I cannot read”, comprising the conclusion: “I cannot read any of Brown’s letters.”

[Full disclosure: Despite Carroll’s jaunty assertion that none of the exercises in Symbolic Logic should be “beyond the grasp of an intelligent child of (say) twelve or fourteen years of age”, I haven’t attempted them myself. I’m a lot dimmer than a well-brought-up 19th century English schoolboy.]

Coincidentally, just as Shakespeare reminded me of Carroll’s sorites, Carroll had Shakespeare on his mind while composing them:

(1) All writers, who understand human nature, are clever;
(2) No one is a true poet unless he can stir the hearts of men;
(3) Shakespeare wrote “Hamlet”;
(4) No writer, who does not understand human nature, can stir the hearts of men;
(5) None but a true poet could have written “Hamlet”.

Conclusion: Shakespeare was clever. Too blasted clever, one sometimes grumbles…

***

In Act III, Scene I, of King John, shortly after Constance’s speech about faith, Cardinal Pandulph makes his own religious appeal to the French king, who is torn between the oath he recently swore to King John and his loyalty to the church. Pandulph unfurls this string of small knots:

O, let thy vow
First made to heaven, first be to heaven perform’d,
That is, to be the champion of our church!
What since thou sworest is sworn against thyself
And may not be performed by thyself,
For that which thou hast sworn to do amiss
Is not amiss when it is truly done,
And being not done, where doing tends to ill,
The truth is then most done not doing it:
The better act of purposes mistook
Is to mistake again; though indirect,
Yet indirection thereby grows direct,
And falsehood falsehood cures, as fire cools fire
Within the scorched veins of one new-burn’d. [2]

Did Shakespeare trust that contemporary theatre-goers could follow this display of Jesuitical rope-trickery? Or, like a Hollywood screenwriter throwing masses of jargon into his space opera script to set an atmosphere of scientific authenticity, was he content that the knots should plink melodiously off his audiences’ skulls, communicating nothing but “ah, this Cardinal fella’s real smart”?

I recall reading Henry V for the first time and nodding off at the Archbishop of Canterbury’s eye-glazing explanation in Act I, Scene II, of Henry’s claim to the French throne. Then I saw Olivier’s film of the play, where the scene is played for comedy, with Canterbury shuffling through stacks of paper, losing his place, being assisted by his flustered deputy, seeming to wind down only to wind back up again, and so on. It culminates with Canterbury on his knees amid drifts of fallen parchment, declaring to the bemused noblemen that Henry’s claim is “as clear as is the summer’s sun.” Which I suspect, though I can’t be sure, Shakespeare intended as a punchline.

Have the play’s interpreters always leavened this scene with buffoonery? Or was the buffoonery a necessary adjustment for modern audiences, who are less engrossed than their ancestors by genealogical disquisition? Anthony Brennan, in his Critical Introduction to the play, argues that Canterbury was meant to be played straight:

Given the extended arguments throughout Shakespeare’s whole cycle of history plays as successive figures try to legitimise their claims to the crown and to dispute that of others, it seems inherently unlikely that the Elizabethan audience regarded such a huge speech as laughter-fodder. [3]

(For his Henry, filmed a half-century after Olivier’s, Kenneth Branagh opted for the stodgier solution of forgoing the comedy, but compressing the speech to a quarter of its length.)

As with Canterbury’s evolution into a figure of comedy, I can imagine Pandulph being performed as a suave word-spinner, dazzling the blunt-witted nobles (who broadly mime their incomprehension) into acquiescence. But the fact that Constance is as nimble a spinner as Pandulph makes me wonder whether Shakespearean audiences, raised in a more verbal culture, were simply more adept at uncoiling knotty rhetoric.

M.

1. Sing. sorites [pron. so-righties], pl. sorites or (Carroll’s preference) soriteses; from the Greek for heap; not to be confused with the sorites paradox.

2. “…as fire cools fire / Within the scorched veins of one new-burn’d.” Apparently in Shakespeare’s time medical orthodoxy held that burns should be treated by the application of heat:

Fernelius asserted that fire was its own antidote and should be applied to the burned part to drive it out which abates the pain. Ambrose Pare similarly called for the burned part to be held near a flame or live coal to draw out the igneous particles in the tissues.

3. I was pointed to this quote by Anthony Boyd-Williams’s 2002 master’s thesis, “I Am Left Out – A Study of Selected Clerical Characters in Shakespeare’s History Plays”, which contains meaty chapters on Pandulph and Canterbury, with detailed scene-by-scene notes on several high-profile filmed and theatrical performances of King John and Henry V, focussing on the portrayals of these characters.

In Robert Heinlein’s 1980 novel The Number of the Beast – discussed in my essay on Heinlein’s Crazy Years – the dimension-hopping heroes bump into Lewis Carroll and trade sorites to pass the time.

 

From Dawn To Decadence (Jacques Barzun).

Its title makes Jacques Barzun’s From Dawn To Decadence a suspense story. We know the “500 Years of Western Cultural Life” that the subtitle describes will end in decadence; what we don’t know is exactly what Barzun means by the word. Are we in for another rant by a disillusioned nonagenarian about badly-dressed teenagers who spit in public?

Sorry to give away the ending, but the answer is: Yes.

When the rant arrives, it comes as a bit of a surprise. In the prologue, Barzun has defined decadence in non-cranky terms:

All that is meant by Decadence is “falling off”. It implies in those who live in such a time no loss of energy or talent or moral sense. On the contrary, it is a very active time, full of deep concerns, but peculiarly restless, for it sees no clear lines of advance. The loss it faces is that of Possibility. The forms of art as of life seem exhausted, the stages of development have been run through.

This is a fair description of our time. And through the first 750 or so pages of the tome – covering roughly the Protestant Reformation to the Second World War – the author exhibits an openness to each innovation that seems to promise a fair and measured present-day outlook.

The thing is, I agree with Barzun’s description of our age as “decadent” – as he defined it above. I think it’s pretty obvious that our forms of art are exhausted. As a guy who in his more grandiose moments has fancied himself an “artist”, I sincerely hope that someone out there is working to free us from the drain-spiralling recursiveness of post- and post-post-modernism (whatever those concepts actually mean) – cos I for one haven’t got any fresh ideas.

I think Barzun’s error is that he snatches too readily at evidence of decadence in our daily lives. For instance, he describes in his chapter on “Demotic Life and Times” (i.e., the present day):

[T]he public schools were also a regular setting for violent acts. Armed guards patrolled the corridors to keep the peace among the pupils; teachers were assaulted to the point where the danger became an expected risk to the profession…From their early teens, pupils carried guns, assaulted each other, and on occasion committed little massacres by shooting into a group at random with a rapid-fire weapon.

This is all technically true, but I doubt that in a few decades the average adult will look back on his elementary school days as the anarchy of gunplay and teacher-beatings that this paragraph describes. For the most part this kind of daily violence has been restricted to poor districts that, in the United States, at the time of Barzun’s writing (the late ’90s), were already beginning to recover from an epidemic of crack- and gang-fuelled self-destructiveness. And after all, as this book makes clear, mass public education and the welfare state are still fairly new phenomena; it’s going to take us a while to get the formula down. Mightn’t lousy schools merely be the result of short-sighted, ill-advised policy choices, of the kind that have led nations into much worse violence in centuries past, rather than a symptom of uniquely modern cultural malaise?

Barzun goes on:

[C]hildren found at home no encouragement to schooling, no instruction in simple manners, no inkling of the moral sense. Some of the waifs bred in that way were those who took to drugs, became thieves before their teens, and committed the conscienceless crimes falsely called mindless. They formed gangs, boys and girls together, with able leaders and strict rules. It was they, not prime ministers, who reinvented government. And when they joined to it so-called Satanism, they rediscovered ritual if not religion.

Hey you Satanic gangs, get off my lawn!

Maybe by taking these intemperate passages out of context, I’m doing Barzun a disservice. Most of the examples he provides are more convincing than those above, and some of his overreach can be excused on the grounds that the dude was ninety-three years old when he wrote the book. I shudder to contemplate what a sour old fuddy-duddy I’ll be when I reach that age.

Barzun isn’t all fuddy-duddy. Yes, he seems weirdly incensed by the United States’ toleration of flag-burning: the subject comes up three different times. But he also musters a strong defense of that conservative bugaboo, relativism. While he isn’t in the least bit interested in modern popular music, he evinces no overt distaste in his passing discussion of jazz. And he goes out of his way to give women thinkers and writers their due, to the extent that it sometimes seems like mere tokenism: a section on 19C female travel writers is basically a list of funny, forgotten British names (Lady Florence Dixie, Mrs. R.H. Tyacke, The Hon. Impulsia Gushington, and so on).

His final chapter anticipates the couple hundred years to come: the population will split into a ruling technocratic elite and a larger semi-literate lumpen class who let drop their democratic responsibilities through indifference; they will live in a world overseen loosely from Brussels and Washington but really broken up into quasi-sovereign regions run by mutually hostile corporations. It’s all pretty familiar from recent science-fiction: a bit of Philip K. Dick, a bit of cyberpunk, a bit of Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake. Compared to those dystopias it actually sounds pretty okay.

Here once again is my more pessimistic prognosis for the next few centuries: the reflexive ironists who make up my emancipated, individualistic cohort having better things to do with their time than make babies, we will increasingly be outnumbered by old-fashioned True Believers – Muslims or Hindus or Mormons or Christians of various stripes – who breed because they think it’s their duty. In a few generations there won’t be enough of us left to keep the True Believers from each other’s throats. Each sect being convinced of the unerringness of their message, they will make war on one another until one of them, doesn’t matter who, comes out on top. Or maybe after a few decades they’ll get smart and come to some kind of accommodation. What kind of culture the survivors will impose, I have no idea. I’ll be long dead by then. Perhaps I’ll have uploaded my consciousness into a computer and the digital me will watch sadly as the barbarians have their day.

Likely something good will come of it eventually. When that flowering emerges, its ironists and individualists can look back to Barzun’s book for a sense of how things might play out.

***

I was heartened to come across these lines in a chapter on French drama:

These same elements are today what makes Racine, for one, hard to follow on the stage. The unprepared listener grasps the sense of the action but – as often in Shakespeare – the involutions of the thought are too fine to seize at the speed of their delivery.

That’s about right. Awful pretty it sounds, but when a couple characters in Shakespeare are bouncing lines off one another, sometimes you’re left in the dust, forced to keep track by watching who’s stabbing who. Of course the solution is to know the plays in advance. But it is my shame to admit that I’m still unfamiliar with a lot of the big ones: Lear and The Tempest and the Henry plays, most egregiously. I mean to catch up, but there’s always something more pressing for me to read.

I’m happy when someone smarter than me confesses that watching or reading Shakespeare is occasionally less than an unalloyed pleasure. In an earlier chapter Barzun has explained how in Shakespeare’s own day he was considered inferior to his contemporary Ben Jonson, and he excerpts some of the passages which Jonson might have been referring to when he wished Shakespeare had “blotted a thousand lines”. I wouldn’t mind if he’d blotted twice that many.

M.

Influenced by the columnist Mark Steyn and by Mike Judge’s film Idiocracy, I developed my prediction for the decline of civilisation first here: “I think women should give up breeding altogether and we should grow our babies in bottles”

…and then here: “Of course, baleful predictions about the end of the world as we know it usually turn out to be wrong by approximately one hundred percent”

…and most recently here: “I always thought I was immune to end-of-the-world despair because, unlike the Utopianists, I’m not eager for the apocalypse at all. I rather like things the way they are”.


Michael A. Charles is a writer, animator, and musician currently living in the Vancouver area. He used to be the singer and guitarist for the band known as Sea Water Bliss.

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