Thursday, May 31, 2007

Summer Reading: The Tamer Tamed; or, The Woman's Prize, by John Fletcher

This one was ... interesting. For one thing, most of the jokes are so dirty they make Shakespeare's "What, with my tongue in your tail?" sound like "Why did the chicken cross the road?" by comparison.

Stuff That Happens: Petruccio, from The Taming of the Shrew, is a widower who decides to marry a sweet young thing named Maria. Everybody, including Petruccio's closest friends, feels very sorry for Maria. Maria has a younger sister named Livia, who loves Roland, but is being pressured to marry an old guy named Moroso. Maria announces that she intends to refuse to have sex with Petruccio until she has reduced him to a suitable state of meekness. Maria and Livia's kinswoman, Bianca (possibly the same Bianca from the original Shrew, possibly not) cheers her on; Livia is skeptical. The women barricade the men out of the bedroom and empty chamber pots on them. This is a major blow to Petruccio's ego ("Am I Petruccio, feared and spoken of, / And on my wedding night I am thus jaded?"

Livia, at Moroso's order, shooes Roland away, then joins forces with Maria and Bianca and plots to escape Moroso. Roland rails about how evil women are. A bunch of country wenches march forth to Maria's defense. Maria and Livia offer Petruccio and Moroso conditions ("liberty and clothes, / When and in what way she will; / Continual moneys, / Company and all the house at her dispose," etc.); Petruccio decides to play along and humor them. Roland rails some more against women and love; Tranio bets him twenty pounds to two hundred that he'll take Livia back if she gives him the chance, and then bets Livia forty angels that he can get Roland back for her. Maria demands extravagant clothing and household improvements; Petruccio remonstrates with her. When this doesn't work, he pretends to have the plague. All flee, taking the household goods with them. Maria returns and plays the perfect wife, protesting that Petruccio has been unkind in sending her away and sending the household goods after her. Livia pretends to be sick and sends for Moroso and Roland.

Petruccio tells his servants that they are all leaving the country to get away from Maria. Maria dresses as a prostitute and refuses to talk. Petruccio rails at her, trying to provoke her to speak, and when that doesn't work, announces he's going abroad and she can have half her marriage portion as long as he doesn't have to see her again. Maria professes herself delighted that he's going abroad to learn wisdom, urges him to travel in as penurious a style as possible, and compares herself to Penelope -- "For in your absence, it must be my honour ... / To have temptations (and no little ones) / Daily and hourly offered me (and strongly)." Petrucchio hasn't quite bargained for this, and confides to Sophocles that he intends to test Maria another way. Livia, meanwhile, tricks her father and Moroso into signing a contract for her marriage with Roland. Sophocles announces to the servants that Petruccio is dead from grief because of Maria's misbehavior. Petruccio stages a funeral and sits up in his coffin just as Maria concludes her "Good riddance" speech. There is a sudden reconciliation. (Maria: "I have done my worst, and had my end. Forgive me. / From this hour make what you please. I have tamed ye / And now am made your servant.") Livia announces her marriage to Roland. There is an epilogue, assigned by editors to Maria: "The tamer's tamed -- but so, as nor the men / Can find one just cause to complain of, when / They fitly do consider, in their lives / They should not reign as tyrants o'er their wives; / Nor can the women from this precedent / Insult or triumph, it being aptly meant / To teach both sexes due equality / And, as they stand bound, to love mutually..."

Thoughts: The editors, Gary Taylor and Celia Daileader, seem to be reading this as a proto-feminist play. I'm not sure this quite works, in spite of the epilogue -- there are as many things pulling against it as for it. Structurally, the final scene promises an end to comedic reversals and a return to the status quo, and Maria vows that "all my life ... I dedicate in service to your [Petruccio's] pleasure." Petruccio's own comment on the situation at the end of the play is "I have my colt again, and now she carries." Also, Maria's basic strategy is to mimic the stereotypical actions of a Very Bad Wife -- it seems as easy to read the play as a confirmation of the accuracy of such stereotypes as a reversal of them, especially since Maria isn't given a great deal of motivation for her behavior in the first place. (As in many of Beaumont and / or Fletcher's plays, a lot of Stuff Happens, but it's not always clear why it happens -- with the exception of the brilliant Knight of the Burning Pestle, where it's crystal clear that Stuff Happens because the audience demands it. I suspect this is true of Tamer as well -- the real trick is pulling off a play that pleases audience members of both sexes, and Fletcher, I think, is going for that delicate balance. I can imagine a lot of debate over who "won.")

Anyway, a fun romp, with a lot of sly wit in the reversals of Petruchio's strategies in the original Shrew. A great deal more verbal humor in this one, and less slapstick. Many hints that Petruccio's married life with his first wife has been very far from peaceful. (Somewhat to my surprise, this play seems to support the reading that Katharina's final speech in Shrew is ironic -- this Kate evidently gave as good as she got up to her dying day. I had a professor in undergrad who was absolutely convinced that the word "labour" in the final act of Shrew was the key to the whole thing, and nobody could have played the "[Thy husband] ... for thy maintenance commits his body / To painful labour" line entirely straight. Curiously, there's a bit of an echo in Tamer; Roland promises "There shall not want my labour, sir" when Livia's father tells him he wants grandchildren. Not sure what to make of this.)

Sunday, May 27, 2007


As a result of this discussion, I have been wondering whether it is in fact possible to construct a plausible theory that Shakespeare was a pirate. I think it is.

Disclaimer: What follows is an exercise in intentional biographical fallacy, and the only claim I make for the merit of this theory is that it is not, in fact, any sillier than some of the stuff I've seen seriously argued about Shakespeare. In other words, kids, rip this off for your term paper at your own peril.

1) What was Shakespeare doing between 1585 and 1592? This is a mysterious gap in what is, otherwise, a remarkably well-documented life. The natural conclusion is that he was out of England, or doing something illegal that he didn't want people to know about, or both.

2) Shakespeare clearly knows a lot about the sea and sailing. This is evident not only in the naturalistic dialogue in The Tempest, where you'd pretty much expect to see it, but in any number of incidental but surprisingly vivid references. Consider, for example, this passage from 2 Henry IV:

Wilt thou upon the high and giddy mast
Seal up the ship-boy's eyes, and rock his brains
In cradle of the rude imperious surge
And in the visitation of the winds,
Who take the ruffian billows by the top,
Curling their monstrous heads and hanging them
With deafening clamour in the slippery clouds,
That, with the hurly, death itself awakes?

What has the ship-boy on the high and giddy mast got to do with Henry IV? Well, not so much, really -- certainly not enough to warrant a digression this long. Clearly, this passage is the work of a poet so fascinated by the sea that he just can't keep it out of his writing, one who has evidently spent some time at sea and observed such a scene.

3) Even so, why does this make Shakespeare a PIRATE? Well, consider what he has to say about pirates. Searching the Shakespeare Concordance turns up about fifteen scenes with the word "pirate" or "pirates." Many of these references are brief. Some are not very complimentary: Shylock, for example, refers to "land-rats and water-rats, water-thieves and land-thieves, I mean pirates," and Lucio in Measure for Measure mentions "the sanctimonious pirate, that went to sea with the Ten Commandments, but scraped one out of the table." But consider the source: Shylock is a villain, and Lucio is full of shit.

Looking closely at what pirates actually do in Shakespeare gives us quite a different picture. Antonio in Twelfth Night gets accused of being a pirate, but he's really a nice, generous guy. Hamlet talks about being rescued by pirates, who, he says, "have dealt with me like thieves of mercy." Likewise, the pirates in Pericles rescue Marina ... well, OK, then they sell her into white slavery, but that's better than killing her, like all the fine upstanding citizens in the play want to do. Finally, there's good old Walter Whitmore and his captain in 2 Henry VI. These guys are learned ("And, like ambitious Sylla, overgorged / With gobbets of thy mother's bleeding heart"), honorable ("Never yet did base dishonour blur our name, / But with our sword we wiped away the blot; / Therefore, when merchant-like I sell revenge, / Broke be my sword, my arms torn and defaced, / And I proclaim'd a coward through the world!"), and even eloquent. Moreover, they perform the inestimable public service of ridding the world of the Duke of Suffolk, and make it clear that they are doing so for the good of the kingdom ("Now will I dam up this thy yawning mouth / For swallowing the treasure of the realm"). Shakespeare's plays, in short, are the work of a man who had considerable sympathy for pirates, and who takes pains to depict them as something other than bloodthirsty thieves. Indeed, we might almost imagine that he had a compulsion to rehabilitate pirates in the eyes of the world, because why the hell else would there be completely random pirates in Hamlet?

4) Check out the portrait. I rest my case.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Summer reading: The Downfall and The Death of Robert, Earl of Huntingdon, by Anthony Munday

First in a series of posts about Stuff I'm Reading. This is mostly for me, so I have a place to store my notes that won't be lost if my laptop crashes, but feel free to read along if you have any interest in oddball plays about Robin Hood and King John.

These are very weird plays, even by Ren drama standards, which is saying a lot (it always blows my mind that we've gotten so used to Hamlet that we think it's in any way normal), and unfortunately, they aren't very good plays either. (Even the editor, John Carney Meagher, can't resist being snarky at Munday's expense in his intro and notes. This was probably the most enjoyable aspect of reading the plays, and I want to have a drink with Meagher. But anyway.)

Plot summary for The Downfall: Robert, earl of Huntington, is betrayed by his steward Warman to his evil uncle the Prior of York. Robert is in love with a girl named Marian, whose name mysteriously changes to Matilda fairly early on, then back to Marian, then back to Matilda, since Munday is conflating a couple of different traditions. Prince John, who is usurping the kingdom while his brother is off on crusade, also lusts after Marian / Matilda, and his mother, Queen Eleanor, lusts after Robert. The upshot of all this is that Warman becomes Sheriff of Nottingham and Robert becomes an outlaw, and starts calling himself Robin Hood. Marian / Matilda plans to run off with him; the queen pretends to help her, and suggests that they change clothes. Secretly, the queen plans that Robin will take her for Marian / Matilda and run away with her instead. (N.B. Historically, Eleanor of Aquitaine would have been getting on for seventy, but we're pretending that the only way to tell the difference between a young woman and an old woman is by the clothes.) Robin and Marian / Matilda foil this plot and hang out in the greenwood, where they are joined by Much the miller's son, Little John, Scarlet and Scathlocke, a girl named Jinny, and, eventually, Friar Tuck (who starts off as a bad guy, and is, bizarrely, played by John Skelton. Well, not literally played by John Skelton, since he was long dead by 1597, but played by an actor playing John Skelton playing Friar Tuck. As a consequence, Friar Tuck keeps falling out of character and breaking into skeltonics because he just can't help himself -- "Master, in briefe, there is a theefe, that seekes your griefe, God send reliefe, to you in neede: for a foule deede, if not with speede, you take good heede, there is decreede") Friar Tuck goes into the greenwood to betray Robin Hood and becomes a good guy; Warman loses his job as sheriff and goes into the greenwood to hang himself and becomes a good guy. Prince John hears that his brother is soon to return and that he killed a lion in Austria by plunging his hand down its throat and pulling its heart out, and wisely concludes that if Richard is that much of a badass he needs to stop usurping the throne, like, right now. John flees into the greenwood and becomes a good guy, but unfortunately it doesn't take. Richard returns to England and restores Robin to his lands.

Plot summary for The Death: Richard and John and the former outlaws go hunting. The evil Prior and Sir Doncaster plot to kill Robin; they try to tempt Warman to play along, but he refuses to play along, so they stab him and make it look like a suicide. The Prior gives Robin a drink that turns out to be poison; he dies after 300+ lines of making peace among former enemies, disposing of his property, etc. In an extended dumbshow, King Richard dies, Prince John becomes king and dispatches his nephew Arthur, and woos Marian / Matilda, who is having none of it. Matilda's father, Fitzwater, calls upon his relatives, who all seem to be named Bruse, to defend her. (Meagher devotes an extended, and hilarious, footnote to working out whether there are actually two or three Bruses in this scene.) Civil war ensues. The king takes Lady Bruse and her young son captive and starves them to death. Hughbert, in the meantime, has smuggled Matilda away to Dunmow Abbey, where a monk and the abbess try to persuade her to sleep with the king. When she refuses, the king's assassin, Brand, steps forward and tells her he's come to poison her. (This is perhaps not the most effective way to go about it if you actually want to poison somebody, but Matilda wants to die anyway, so she drinks the poison willingly.) Brand climbs a tree to hang himself, but falls to his death before he can complete the deed. In a gloriously disgusting scene, Young Bruse displays the bodies of his mother and young brother for all to see, explaining that Lady Bruse's teeth and chin are bloody from chewing her own flesh out, her hands are bloody from offering it to her child to eat, but the child's teeth are not bloody "Which is an argument the boy would not / Once stir his lips, to touch that bloudy foode ... But as it seem'd (for see, his prettie / Palme is bloody too) he cast it on the ground." Matilda's body is brought out on a bier, and King John views it and repents of his crimes. There is some talk about whether the lords should follow King Lewis of France, who is about to invade, since John hasn't worked out so well, but the Queen points out that Lewis might turn out to be even worse, so Bruse and the others make their peace with John. There is a brief epilogue: "Thus is Matildaes story showne in act / And rough heawen out by an uncunning hand: / Being of the most materiall points compackt / That with the certainst state of truth doe stand." (Meagher's note on the final line: "!")

My thoughts: Probably the most interesting parts are the metatheatrical bits -- the induction with Skelton, and a later scene where Skelton and Sir John Eltam talk about how the play defeats the audience's expectations for a story about Robin Hood ("Me thinks I see no jeasts of Robin Hoode / No merry Morices of Friar Tuck, / No pleasant skippings up and downe the wodde / No hunting songs, no coursing of the Bucke.") Skelton argues that "merry jeasts ... have bene showne before" and the time is ripe for a more tragic take on the same material. The other conspicuously absent feature, at least to my mind, is actual outlawry -- there's none of this robbing-from-the-rich business here. (I suspect this may be part of why I'm frustrated with these plays -- it feels like there are lots of places where Munday could be grappling head-on with all kinds of interesting questions about law and justice and disobedience, but he always seems to skirt them -- as at the end of the second play, when the upshot is "Well, we don't know King Lewis, and he might be worse, and besides, he's French.")

Lots of stuff about temptation in the second play, with Warman and later Matilda -- the scenes parallel each other, and there are some definite morality-play echoes in both. Matilda does seem to be wavering a little at one point; as Meagher notes, she speaks of her potential loss of chastity in the future rather than the conditional. Matilda's scene with Brand is easily one of the better bits; she pulls it off with dignity and a touch of humor. ("Farewell goodfellowe, now thy medicine works / And with the labour, I am forc't to rest") Webster seems to have been echoing this scene, at least subconsciously, in The Duchess of Malfi. ("Thou art the last poore alms-man I shall see. / Come, come, dispatch: what weapon death weare, / When he assailes mee? Is it knife or sworde? / A strangling cord, or sodaine flaming fire?")

Sunday, May 20, 2007


Have been doing Actual Work: among other things, drafting syllabi for next year's classes, since we're supposed to get the book orders in by an impossibly early date. Go me. (Actually, I'm not sure this counts as work, because it's something I really, really like doing. All that idealism and potential! All that room to experiment and have Great Ideas! Besides, you can make up any policies you like and it will be a long time before anybody complains about them, nor do you have to read the papers for months and months! What's not to like?)

Now I'm starting to wonder what you do with a freshman comp class that isn't a total death march. At the U. of Basketball, the rules were very strict: eight papers and a speech every semester with the last paper due on the final day of class, three hours a week in the classroom, mandatory library instruction, etc., etc. At New SLAC, there are five comp papers every semester, and one of them is due during the exam period and counts as a final, so it's really only four during regular class time. And it's a four-hour-a-week class. This is liberating in some ways (we're going to have actual discussions! About ideas 'n' stuff!) but also a bit scary -- all that time! What am I going to do with it? (As a side note, I'm also slightly alarmed that the sample comp syllabus that one of my colleagues-to-be gave me includes the rule, "No smokeless tobacco," but let that pass.)

I'm hoping this will make me hate grading less than I do, and that I will be able to break out of the very bad habit of handing out Bs like candy at the end of the semester because what the hey, they've survived Death March Comp and they deserve something for not rising up in mutiny. I'm not sure I believe this will happen, but I'm going to try. (Part of the trouble is that I'm a skeptic about the whole concept of grading. And about the whole concept of freshman comp, for that matter. I kinda liked what they did at my undergrad college, which was to shoo everyone into a "writing-intensive freshman seminar" with maybe six sections of regular comp left over for the international students. And so I found myself in a class called "The Films of Ingmar Bergman and the Classical Tradition," with six or seven other freshmen and a somewhat eccentric Classics professor who appeared to be under the impression that the films of Ingmar Bergman and the classical tradition had something to do with each other. I'm not at all convinced that they do, but we got to watch lots of black and white movies and read Plato and Euripides and feel all intellectual, which is not a bad experience for an eighteen-year-old from the suburbs. Also, it was sort of a revelation that the professor spoke Greek, Latin, and Swedish, because like most eighteen-year-olds from the suburbs, I hadn't known that you could do all of these things at once. However, this sort of thing probably works best if your students already know how to write, because I don't think we got much actual composition instruction in that class at all.)

Oh well. Back to work...

Thursday, May 17, 2007


Nice things about May: Fresh strawberries from the farmer's market. Mmm, strawberries. I got Woodchuck pear cider, too, so I can sit out on the patio drinking it. Also, lots of time to read and write and do whatever.

Not-so-nice things about May: It's so hot that the glue on the rear-view mirror melted and fell off. (This happens regularly in the summer around here, and I hate it -- it's such a pain to reattach.) When my parents came down for graduation, they expressed the opinion that the Old Brown Ford was now in its final stages of disintegration, and while I'm not sure that's true (it runs better than it looks), they are probably right that I can't take it with me when I move halfway across the country. Sigh.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007


As of today, it has been exactly two weeks since I was offered the new job. It feels like it's been at least a year. The first day or two, I was just kind of stunned -- by that point, I'd been through what felt like a record number of MLA, phone, and campus interviews without an actual offer, and I was starting to feel like I was just interviewing for the sake of interviewing, as if it were just an eccentric and not especially enjoyable hobby without an actual goal at the end. The academic job market warps your brain in some really weird ways.

Anyway, I'm still a little stunned, and pleased, but the fact that I'm actually leaving is starting to sink in. I've cleaned out my office and brought home the large collection of books and the plastic dinosaur named Jesus that my dissertation director gave me when he retired (I hasten to add that he didn't name the dinosaur Jesus; that was all me) and tossed most of the old student papers going back to Fall of 2000, when I taught my first section of freshman comp. It's a little startling to realize that most of those students are older now than I was when I taught them; I wonder what they're doing now. (I know one of them did go on to major in English, so I can't have warped him past recovery.) Actually, they were a real gift of a class; I didn't realize until much later how lucky I'd been. I came into the classroom one afternoon and discovered that they'd been writing a collaborative poem on the blackboard and wanted me to add a line, and even the ones who were flakes or screwups or appallingly bad writers were thoroughly nice. I can still name at least two-thirds of them without even looking back at the class roll, and would probably know them if I saw them -- it's the later classes, the ones from years two and three and four, that are starting to fade. I was surprised to find that I didn't even recognize the names on some of the papers. And I felt, for sure, that I'd been in grad school a little too long -- but if I'm lucky the coming years will be much, much longer. Seven years is nothing. Except when it feels like it's everything.

I've been stocking up on books from the library, too, since I don't know exactly when my account is going to expire, and I keep thinking, "oh no, I've never read The Downfall of Robert, Earl of Huntingdon / George a Green / Ariosto's satires / whatever, and what if I don't have a chance to read it again?" This is, of course, a completely daft way to think, because that's what interlibrary loan is for, but the hoarding instincts are strong, kind of like a chipmunk preparing for winter, so here I am with cheek pouches an apartment full of books that I may or may not have time to read. I might write about some of these books later on, because notes and random thoughts are always good and I may as well use this blog to record them.

Monday, May 14, 2007

So, I got myself a blog to celebrate making it through grad school, 'cos all the cool untenured female academics seem to have one these days, and I wanted to comment on other people's blogs without seeming creepy. I'm not really sure what's going to go in it, but I thought I'd introduce myself as best I can. (I'm trying to keep this sort of anonymous, although I've failed miserably at every attempt I've ever made to remain anonymous on the Internet before, so I don't know if it will last.)

I'm female. I study Renaissance drama. I've just finished a Ph.D. in English at a school that will henceforth be known as the University of Basketball. Starting in August, I'm going to be a visiting assistant professor at a small liberal arts college that hasn't got a nickname yet. I like playing bridge and Trivial Pursuit, but I'm lousy at chess. I am waiting impatiently for the release of the seventh Harry Potter book and the fifth installment in George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire. I've been to some interesting places over the years, including Alaska, New Zealand, and Bosnia-Herzegovina, and I want to go to Istanbul before I get too much older. I might blog about some or all of these things, or possibly about other things. Anyway, feel free to read and comment.