Monday, December 13, 2010

Random end-of-semester bullets

-- Final grades are in. I have decided to go to Parentland for three weeks, starting tomorrow, and not to read the evals until I get home in January. I think this will be a healthy and sensible thing to do, in contrast to my previous policy of hanging out in Sleepy Southern Town for days with nothing to do except fret about things my students might say.

-- I started my SAA paper, and then I realized I was trying to find Deep Meaning in a song that goes "John for the King has been in many ballads / John for the king down dino / John for the King has eaten many salads / John for the king sings hey ho." At which point I gave up in despair. Oh dear.

-- On a tangentially related note, I bought the big Richard Scarry book of nursery rhymes, because I had vaguely fond memories of it from my childhood and thought it might make a good first birthday present for the Small Nephew. Who knew there were nursery rhymes about how Welshmen are lying thieves and you should break into their houses and beat them up? I bet my brother and sister-in-law are going to have a fun time explaining that one...

-- Should I teach Love's Labour's or Shrew in the spring Shakespeare class? (Alas, there isn't enough time for both.) I happen to like LLL better, as it has smart spirited women who don't get punished, and it ends with the kind of tonal shift that I have a massive soft spot for, and I can show clips from last year's Globe production, which is fabulous. And it would generally be a better play for teaching students about how Shakespearean language and wordplay works. OTOH, Shrew is an easier read, and it would fit better into this year's lineup of texts since it's pretty much straight-up Roman comedy with a few English twists. (We will be starting the course off with Errors and Plautus's Menaechmi, and I've got Titus, Lucrece, and Julius Caesar lined up for later in the semester.) And the Christopher Sly framework would be really good for talking about metatheater, and there are more film versions, including two different stage productions filmed live, so there would be a ton of nice opportunities to talk about performance choices. Damn, they're both so good, only they're good for such different stuff, and I just can't decide.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

I need to learn some more early modern ballad tunes...

... so that I stop humming the songs in plays to music that is totally inappropriate. For example, I'm pretty sure "Pack clouds away" is not actually supposed to go to the tune of "I don't care what they say, I won't stay in a world without love."

Monday, November 29, 2010

Dude, are you TRYING to shoot yourself in the foot?

Dear Ostrich Student,

Sticking your head in the sand so you can't see the deadlines DOESN'T MAKE THEM GO AWAY. The fact that you failed my class last spring, after submitting none of the three papers and not turning up for the final, should have given you a clue that this isn't a successful strategy. So why -- WHY -- have you vanished, nowhere to be seen, on your assigned presentation date for the second semester running?

And what was up with the way you conspicuously failed to hand in the second paper, anyway? First you e-mailed me two days after it was due to ask if you could submit it electronically. Grudgingly, I said OK even though I hate it when students don't give me a hard copy, since it was over the weekend and the late penalty would continue to accrue until you handed it in. Come Monday, you hadn't sent me anything. I asked you about it. You said, "Oh, I thought it would be too late to hand it in." I pointed out that, as the syllabus indicates, you can still get some credit for a five-day-late paper if the grade without the late penalty would have been a C+ or higher. You said OK, you would turn it in immediately. Nada.

Work with me, for God's sake. I want you to get your C- and go away. The presentations are super-informal. If you had shown up and done a half-assed job, you would still have earned partial credit for it. If you show up for the final and make a reasonable attempt to answer the questions, you'll probably earn some credit. But if you pull another disappearing act, I don't have any choice but to flunk you.


Monday, November 15, 2010


This has been a very long and stressful week (and yes, I KNOW it is only Monday; that's the point). But, thanks to a chain of events that I would rather not have had to deal with today, I do have a fancy new printer. With a scanner.

Thus, in lieu of an actual post, have some sketches from the revenge tragedy seminar I took in grad school. (This is the sort of thing that passes for note-taking with me, and I kind of wish I had taken actual notes in that class, but oh well.)

Click to enlarge and behold the Stick-Hamlet in its full glory.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

With me grading papers, I have a pet peeve.

AUUGHHH. What is UP with all the unnecessarily roundabout constructions? And why are some students apparently allergic to the word "because"?

"Being that I'm wearing the pope hat, you have to do what I say."

"With me being the one wearing the pope hat, you have to do what I say."

Nonononono. Because I'm wearing the pope hat, you have to do what I say*. Or: I'm wearing the pope hat, so you have to do what I say. What is so difficult about this?

ALSO, why do students always want to write "In the article, they say..." instead of "The article says..."?

* Yes, I'm aware that some K-12 teachers, for some inscrutable reason, tell students that they must never ever begin a sentence with the word "because." Dudes, that's a bogus, made-up rule, but if you MUST follow every silly instruction your high school teacher ever gave you while totally ignoring mine, what's wrong with "You have to do what I say because I'm wearing the pope hat"?

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Readings on women's studies and pedagogy, anyone?

OK, so there's this group that I offered to chair in a fit of madness. Among other things, I need to come up with some ideas for a common reading that we can discuss at subsequent meetings, something about women's studies and pedagogy. (Personally, I'd prefer just to take some time and talk about women's studies and pedagogy, but some of the other members of the group seem to want to make it a Big Organized Thing! With assigned Readings! Maybe even an entire book, since we have the budget for books!)

So, any suggestions? I'd prefer something practically focused, about the challenges of teaching women's-studies-related content at an institution like mine -- not super-selective, in a pretty conservative part of the country, with lots of first-generation, vocationally oriented students -- and especially in gen ed courses. (Actually, I think what I really want to read is the book-or-article equivalent of Dr. Crazy's or Heu Mihi's blog posts on this topic, only I don't think I can get away with suggesting a blog post. Which does not preclude my shamelessly begging for suggestions on my own blog, because who's going to know?) I'm really hoping to avoid anything either heavily theoretical or confessional and self-indulgent.

Oh, and this faculty group is interdisciplinary, so pieces that are not exclusively English or humanities-focused would be a plus.

Tall order, I know, but y'all are awesome so I figured you might have some ideas.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Shakespeare dreams

My DVD of the new Macbeth with Patrick Stewart arrived the other day, so I decided to watch it to celebrate my last grading-free night for a while. So, naturally, I dreamed about Macbeth, only not Stewart-Macbeth (which is just as well, because that would be a serious nightmare). No, in my dream the Folger and another theater were putting on rival productions of Macbeth, so I went to see both of them. And one of them was a very avant-garde production where there was no seating and the audience got to wander all over the theater and follow the actors around (and, in fact, had to do so, because the sets were full of weird arches and nooks so that you could only see the action from one particular angle). You could even come up on the stage and, for example, stalk the murderers while they were stalking Banquo. It was cool, if completely impractical.

Most of my Shakespeare dreams involve performance. I never seem to dream about teaching Shakespeare, or about being a character in Shakespeare, and very rarely about reading or doing research on Shakespeare. (Except for that one dream where I discovered the original manuscripts of a bunch of Shakespeare's tragedies, and Severus Snape was a character in all of them. He had to be edited out of the final versions because he kept running around concocting antidotes for all the characters who got poisoned and telling the rest of them when they were being idiots, thus converting all the tragedies into non-tragedies. That was an awesome dream. I was very disappointed when I woke up.)

But most of the time, even in dream-world, I'm very conscious that the play is a play. I used to have a recurring dream in which someone forced me to act in a stage production at short notice, ignoring my protests that I didn't have any of the lines memorized. ("You call yourself a Shakespeare scholar and you don't KNOW this stuff by heart?") Usually it was one of two parts, Emilia in Othello or Nerissa in The Merchant of Venice, and I would end up having to ad-lib it. I don't think I've had that dream since grad school. Perhaps it was really a paper-and-dissertation-anxiety dream in another guise.

I wonder what sort of dreams people who work on non-dramatic literature have about their texts?

Sunday, October 17, 2010


Am halfway through grading the Brit Lit midterms, a long and involved process which entails spreading all of the exams out on the floor from best to worst. I was getting depressed, and also a little lightheaded from the extra beer I allow myself on such occasions, so I've decided to knock off for the night.

Scores so far (out of 50, with 45 as the real maximum expected grade): 48, 44, 44, 42, 39, 36, 34, 32.5, 31, 30, 29, 27.

This is a typical distribution for a gen ed literature course at Misnomer U.: two distinct peaks, with only a handful of exams falling in long valley in the middle. The bell curve is upside down. This doesn't make determining grades particularly difficult -- it is obvious where the A and C spikes are, and the fact that there is a long and sparsely populated B-range just means people are less likely to argue about their grades. But it does make teaching the class damned hard. It's kind of nice to have a visual representation of why it's hard, a reminder that it isn't just me. (Maybe I will leave the exams on the floor for the rest of the semester.)

What do y'all's grading distributions look like? Bell curve or bloodbath?

Friday, October 1, 2010

What I learned about college from the movies

One of my freshman comp assignments requires the students to pick a movie set on a college campus and analyze how it represents higher education. I've been using this assignment for six or seven years, ever since I was a grad student, and cheerfully grading paper after paper about movies I'd never seen. But now that I am a person with a middle-class income and a Netflix account, I decided I was going to watch all the movies. It was quite an experience. I kinda thought I knew a little bit about colleges, having spent almost half of my life studying and / or working at them. But now I see I had much to learn from the movies:

1) At all colleges, there are exactly two fraternities, one of which is populated exclusively by obnoxious, uptight preprofessionals, and the other by likeable underdogs. (N.B., the underdogs remain underdogs by definition, even though it is obvious from the beginning of the movie that they will win all competitions and the obnoxious guy's girlfriend. It's magic.)

2) Harvard Law School is very very very very hard. Unless you are blonde, in which case it is easy.

3) You can have a complete college experience without ever setting foot in the classroom or interacting with a faculty member. But you cannot have one without football.

4) All deans, presidents, provosts, and other authority figures are alumni of the college where they work, and have unfinished business from their undergraduate days. Most of them also have attractive female relatives.

5) Sometimes, your RA turns out to be an undercover Secret Service agent.

6) All classes are held in massive lecture halls with tiered seating.

7) Everybody who is not in a fraternity lives in the dorms, even grad students. All roommates dislike each other at first sight, but become bestest best buddies by mid-semester. (In the unlikely event that your roommate befriends you immediately, you should seek psychiatric help, because there is a good chance that you are actually schizophrenic and have hallucinated him.)

8) All colleges are either Harvard, Princeton, MIT, or imaginary.

9) The janitor is way smarter than you are.

Thursday, September 30, 2010


A Basic English story:

I'm holding conferences this week in Basic English. The assignment is pretty straightforward -- pick an advertisement from a magazine; identify the audience as specifically as possible; analyze how the ad's strategies and appeals work and why they're appropriate for that audience. You know, the sort of warm-up, learning-to-think-about-rhetoric assignment most instructors give in the first few weeks of freshman comp. In Basic, we spend most of the semester on it.

So, one of the students picks an ad from a parenting magazine. OK. In an effort to get her to define the audience more specifically than "parents," I pull up the magazine's web site on my computer. And we are in Glossy-Magazine-Land: a world where practically everyone is white; all parents are slim, good-looking, neatly attired thirtysomething professionals; and all the kids are clean and cute. Where parents spend hours making elaborate costumes for Halloween and fancy cakes for birthdays, and where they can have their pick of jobs at the 100 most family-friendly companies in America. You know, the world the media tells you is normal.

"OK, what sort of parents do you think would be most likely to read this magazine?"


"... What makes you say teenagers?"

"Well, lots of teenagers are having babies nowadays."

I don't know how to deal with moments like this. I think I would be able to find something to say to a student who was saddened or outraged or just plain bewildered at the gulf between Glossy-Magazine-Land and her own lived experience. I don't know what to say to one who is unconscious that the gulf exists. There is no decent way to point it out, for the truth is not decent. I think I floundered a little, pointed out that most teenagers are not looking for corporate jobs, evaded the real issue.

I have the knowledge to teach Shakespeare. I don't have the wisdom to teach Basic Comp.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

on misreading

This weekend, I'm grading a heap of poetry mini-papers from Brit Lit II. These are mercifully short, but incredibly labor-intensive, because it's a gen ed course and some of the students have no experience doing literary analysis. And, as is often the case in gen ed, I'm running into more than a few papers that seem to be based on fundamental misreadings of the text. Like, say, a paper about When We Two Parted written by a student who is under the impression that the speaker's ex-lover is dead rather than unfaithful. Or one about My Last Duchess where the student thinks the Duke is a really great guy who was deeply in love with his late wife.

Usually, these students are unfamiliar with figurative language and inexperienced at reading for detail and nuance; sometimes the problem is compounded by unfamiliar vocabulary and cultural references (one woman who was in my class a few years ago thought that Blake's The Chimney Sweeper was about a bat, because apparently it's a dialect term for a bat in these parts and she'd never, understandably, encountered an actual chimney sweeper). And I'm never sure what to do about it -- because I do want my gen ed students to recognize that literature lends itself to multiple interpretations, and I want them to have the courage of their own convictions instead of looking to me or for The One Right Answer, and swooping in to say "No, this interpretation is just plain wrong" doesn't seem to be the right way to go about it. And yet, some interpretations are just plain wrong.

Sigh. Back to grading.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Basic Comp: a somewhat uncharitable rant

So I seem to have become the Basic Comp person in my department, at least for the immediate future. I'm in two minds about this. In the spring semester it is not too burdensome, since the classes are tiny; it is actually more pleasant than teaching regular comp in the spring, when you get all the students who started off in Basic and all the ones who flunked last semester. So spring semester, OK. And I got lucky last semester, because one of my students (which is to say, 25% of the class) was really pretty awesome and a pleasure to have in class, and he was the sort of person who could actually benefit from Basic Comp, since he had simply been out of school for twenty years and needed a refresher. Returning students, fine. International students, probably fine, although I haven't had a chance to put this to the test, since they all seem to get placed in regular English 101.

But if English is your native language and you've just spent twelve years in school in the United States, and you still can't read, can't write, can't think, and don't have any real desire to acquire these skills, is one semester going to make a difference? Really?

I am trying not to think this way. I started off this semester resolved to treat my Basic students the way I wish my gym teachers had treated me (because I am SO not an athlete, and I was never able to pick up on the rules of games when the other kids seemed to absorb them by osmosis, so I do know what it's like to be forced to take a class where I felt hopelessly inept. And I can imagine how badly screwed I'd be in a society where all the good jobs were reserved for people with athletic ability.)

But, y'know, if I had to take a gym class, and I knew my ability to get a university degree was riding on whether I passed this class, and the teacher said, "Read this article on the Internet and print it off" several times, and the syllabus said the same thing, I think I would show up for class with a copy of the freakin' article. Which was more than FIFTEEN OUT OF EIGHTEEN students managed to do today.

I also think I would try not to FALL ASLEEP IN CLASS. (Here is where I wish I had the nerve to channel my long-tenured, Brooklyn-born, take-no-shit-from-anybody freshman Shakespeare prof, who once kicked a student out of class rather spectacularly for doing just that.) I mean, dude. That's just basic self-preservation, right there.

Twelve more weeks...

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

random bullets o' back to school

... because I haven't got the energy for a proper post. Man, that first stack of grading is always a shock to the system.

-- I think I just volunteered to chair a Thing. I don't really want to chair this thing, but I was feeling guilty about my utter lack of scholarship, and I suppose I had a vague idea that I could swap it for some service. That was stupid. Stop me before I do it again.

-- My regular freshman comp students are a dream of a class, smart and skeptical and engaged. Basic Comp, not so much. (If I were in charge of the world, I think I would abolish Basic Comp and parcel out the low-scoring students among the other sections, with maybe some arrangement where they register for four credits instead of three, and get some extra tutoring and one-on-one time. Because honestly, I'm not sure the remedial classes are so much about teaching students as warehousing them, and when they're all warehoused together for most of their classes, they don't have anyone to model what being a well-prepared, engaged student looks like. And you know, maybe a few more of them will sink if we throw them straight into a real college class, but I bet some of them will find out they can swim, too.)

-- Writing this Kzoo abstract is making me feel stupid.

-- Teaching mostly makes me feel smart.

-- When the latest package arrives from Amazon, I will own five film versions of Hamlet. Should I get the Laurence Olivier boxed set and make it six? Probably not, as I'm not sure I like any Laurence Olivier Shakespeare movies other than King Lear, but on the other hand, I'm starting to feel like a collector.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Fret dips into No-Fear Shakespeare

Oh, sweet Jesus. One of my students recommended a "study aid" called No-Fear Shakespeare to the class. It's a sort of facing-page "translation" of Shakespeare into modern English. (Yes, I know Shakespeare is already in modern English.) I said very quickly that I didn't endorse the recommendation, but I felt like I owed them a fuller explanation of why not, so I've been poking around on the NFS web site for examples of lines that lose a great deal in translation. For your delectation, here are some of my favorites so far.

How now, my lord of Worcester?

"Hello there, my lord of Worcester!"

And when I told thee he was of my counsel
Of my whole course of wooing, thou cried’st “Indeed?”

"And when I told you he was involved the whole time I was trying to get Desdemona, you were like, 'Oh, really?'"

The Myrmidons are no bottle-ale houses.

"Great warriors aren't mom-and-pop diners, you know."

Let our catch be 'Thou Knave'.

"Let's dance to 'You Jerk'."

Malvolio's a Peg-a-Ramsey.

"Malvolio's Little Bo-Peep."

They need a new name, though. I am very afraid.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

New Year's Eve; or, Have I Really Been Doing This For a Decade?

One of these days I should really post about something substantive. But for now, to mark the eve of a new semester and the approaching ten-year anniversary of my first-ever class (holy crap, ten years of freshman comp!), here are some more bits and pieces from old journals. Grad school edition, this time.

My first day in the classroom:

I can't match any names with faces, I feel like I blathered far too much w/o saying what I really wanted to, a couple of the students seem to be tough customers, and I haven't a clue what we're doing on Friday. Just a normal day, I guess...

Oh, and of course when I asked them to pair off & introduce each other, the guy who can't pronounce his R's ended up introducing Wodewick, I mean Roderick. (Shades o' Life of Brian. Luckily this did not occur to me 'til later -- giggling helplessly would have been unseemly.)

Hee. I had forgotten about Wodewick. A week later:

Well, Monday went OK, but today -- whoo! I think I made a royal fool out of myself trying to explain how to do a cite for an ad w/ no title and a corporate author in a periodical (note to self: always get these things straight before class). Don't feel like recording the gory details. Also -- despite my best efforts class ended at 2:45 or so w/ me groping for more things to say. Yow...

... Got a new student today, a guy who plays the drums. I know this b/c he wrote "I play drums" on his index card in place of his phone number. Perhaps they're talking drums...

Teaching citation format, by the way, remains my downfall -- I never know what to say besides "Look in the freaking book, OK? That's what I do." And the flailing-to-fill-up-the-last-five-minutes feeling is still familiar, although nowadays I'll usually just dismiss them without apology.

On the other hand, I take comfort in the fact that never, in all the years since that first infamous semester, have I mistook a student for my boyfriend on the phone. Some lessons one only needs to learn once.

A few other snapshots from that first semester:

-- And let's face it, a B is average these days. I know [Freshman Shakespeare Prof] wouldn't approve, but I don't think I can crush youthful psyches with his brand of panache, not yet.

-- Must remind them that business letters do not customarily begin, "Hi, my name is R. J. Reynolds..." or "I bring you greetings."

-- Drank far too much at the reception last night (luckily most of the profs did too; I shall cherish the memory of [August Teutonic Goddess of Composition] wandering around the buffet table, stealing cheese.)

-- Got an e-mail from [a student] this morning -- a petition against the evil atheists who want "Touched by an Angel" cancelled! Sheesh. Perhaps I should cut my hair so the world can see my horns.

-- Another opening paragraph for the collection:

"'Attack and / or Armored' is a practical guide to finding you, your country, or your militia a suitable helicopter for your individuals needs. It strives to answer the question: Attack, armored, or attack and armored? A difficult question to answer in today's free world."

(Perhaps I should have been clearer on what I meant by "scholarly article.")

Needless to say, absolutely none of these things would surprise me if I encountered them nowadays. Except, perhaps, for the cheese-stealing Teutonic Goddess of Composition.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Still not dead...

... and I haven't abandoned this blog, either. It's just that I have not been in an academic headspace all summer, and thus haven't had much to blog about. (I did finish off the Shakespeare canon by reading Timon of Athens, though! Man, is that a weird play. I didn't like it very much, but I do want to see it in performance, preferably staged as a surrealistic black comedy. Also, I think Timon should fake his own death and then come out at the end to give everyone the finger, because the whole burying-himself thing makes NO SENSE otherwise.)

Right now, I'm doing some stuff for International Student Orientation and trying to get all the syllabi in order for next semester. I'm teaching almost the same set of classes as last semester, only with Late Shakespeare instead of Early Shakespeare, but it feels like everything needs to be changed. I have 23 students registered for remedial comp instead of 4, so it's going to be a totally different class, and I have to change freshman comp to a MWF schedule and Brit Lit II to a TR schedule instead of the other way around, and we can't read a novel in Brit Lit II because it got dropped in my lap last week when it was too late to order books, so I've been dipping into the Victorian fiction selections in the Norton, which are meager. I think we'll read "The Mortal Immortal," "The Old Nurse's Story," and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and have a sort of mini-unit on Tales of Horror and the Supernatural, which would be rather fun.

The Small Nephew, who has had some rather serious health issues for most of his seven months of life (one of the reasons why I have not been thinking much about academic stuff this summer at all), is doing well after his second round of surgery. It's going to be something he'll have to deal with for the rest of his life, but it is treatable, and even a generation ago it wouldn't have been. I've been thinking a lot about the Mary Jonsons and Hector Phillipses of previous generations, and all the kids whose names we don't know because they weren't related to poets, and I am awed by the level of fortitude it took to be a parent for most of human history. That is all.

Saturday, June 26, 2010


No, not this kind. Just my usual summertime brain-funky ways, exacerbated by the fact that I'm spending most of this summer in Deep South Town, which is the laziest place in the universe. (I think it would be a good idea to finish the book manuscript, or at least send off an article or two, so I can look productive and won't have to do this again next summer. But I'm not very good at translating that thought into action.)

I don't do well without structure and deadlines. I know this. I figure I'll do stuff later, and then when it is later, I think of something else that I need to do first. The only reason I finished my dissertation, I sometimes think, is because I managed to trick myself into writing it as a series of conference papers, which come with built-in deadlines. (Also, I had a summer tutoring job which involved sitting in the student lounge night after night, waiting for students to show up, and I did have a laptop but didn't have wireless access. This is a tricky and difficult-to-replicate set of circumstances.)

And now I'm trying to turn the thing into a book that someone might actually want to read, and it feels like this endless process of unweaving something that was perfectly serviceable to begin with, and turning it into a tangled mess. Like being Penelope, only without the higher purpose. (Because honestly, I'm not convinced that anyone really wants to read scholarly books of any description, let alone this one. Frankly, the whole scholarship machine strikes me as about as useful as running on a hamster wheel and rather less fulfilling, and if someone offered me twice the committee work in exchange for no publication expectations ever, I would take that deal in a heartbeat. There, I've said it. I know we're all supposed to love our research and be excited about having time for it, but I don't. I'm in this profession because I like most of my students and believe I'm teaching them something worthwhile, and because I believe that my poor, underfunded, embattled university is doing meaningful work in a community that desperately needs it, and I want to do what I can to support that mission.)

But in the meantime, I probably do need to publish something, and I probably need to make some progress on that front this summer. Only it's not absolutely necessary that I do so today. Or tomorrow. Or on any given day, really. So it's ridiculously easy to turn into a complete slug who can't even maintain a blog properly. (You'll notice the near-complete silence since April's Shakespeare blogging. Somehow I could do that while teaching four classes with four different preps, but take away that structure, and it all goes to hell.)

On the plus side, I have very nearly finished unpacking the boxes from when I moved here two years ago! Woo hoo!

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Undergraduate Diaries II: List-o-mania

So it turns out the applying-to-grad-school journal I quoted from in my last post has a whole section that consists entirely of lists. Some of them are more or less sensible and practical: addresses and phone numbers of grad programs, U.S. News rankings, professors I might be able to ask for letters of rec. And then some of them are completely daft. To wit:

Questions I'd Like To Know The Answers To, Someday

1) Why is hunting badger a deed of darkness?

2) Why does any attempt to discuss any version of the Philomela story end with the whole class rolling on the floor in unbridled hilarity?

3) Why are there so many dead birds in medieval & Renaissance lit?

4) When & how does a sorceress become a witch? How does this relate to historical developments, or does it?

5) So what is it about the cloth-making trade that makes women so uppity?

6) Where do werewolves come from?

7) Was the siege of Troy the ur-war, so to speak? Do writers generally treat this story in terms of military conditions in their own society? (Rhetorical question ... I think.)

8) Bill tells us that the Capulets and Montagues were alike in dignity, not in social class per se. My feeling (based on my own knowledge of how people talk and whose parties are more fun to crash) is that the M's are old money and the C's are the bourgeois upstarts (Lady C. is very anxious to forget this.) Is there any way to prove this w/ textual evidence?

9) Is Hamlet really just the collective subconscious of Denmark? (Funny how everybody who tries to kill him ends up destroying themselves...)

And then there is a page of alternative career plans, which are, alas, not very practical at all. I reproduce them as a public service for anyone wondering how to ride out the recession.

Fun Things To Do With an Advanced Degree in English (BESIDES being a professor!)

1) Teach high school.

2) Own a secondhand bookstore with a labyrinth of little rooms and several armchairs full of cats. (And a friendly room for kids.)

3) Run a creative writing camp (the diametrical opposite of
[my summer employer from hell] -- no pressure, no computers, lots of shady trees to write under.)

4) Teach junior high.

5) Write perverse fairy tales.

6) Labor on behalf of starving artists, especially Shakespeare companies.

7) Run a cool coffeehouse with plenty of books and armchairs in small rooms.

8) Run a Shakespeare camp.

9) Be a plumber who discusses English lit while fixing drains.

10) Teach (what the heck) elementary school.

11) Write poetry that is not pretentious enough to publish.

12) Teach ESL.

13) Write book reviews.

14) Find creative ways to give poetry back to the masses.

N.B. With the possible exception of #9, none of these seems exactly like a lucrative career choice. Ah well.

And then there is a page of cynical, but probably accurate, advice for dealing with professors. I'm fairly sure that I figured out most of these the hard way.

Rules for Students

1) Don't ever forget how powerless you truly are. If you may speak freely to a professor, it's by his will, not your own. Know when to bite your tongue, when to nod & smile.

2) On the other hand, you have an advantage because you know your prof far better than he will ever know you. Also, you're trained to listen and he's trained to talk. Keep your ears open & learn to judge character!

3) Rapport is a gift from heaven. Don't question it, analyze it, or push it too far. Do enjoy it.

4) Expect to do all the listening & almost all the remembering.

5) Gossip only with fellow students.

6) If your prof is in the habit of bad-mouthing her colleagues, do not trust her.

7) Demand no favors.

8) An acid tongue is OK, but don't forget to smile!

9) Be honest -- but know when to keep silent.

10) Remember they're human (as if I could ever forget).

11) Even if your prof is a priest or a deacon, don't ask him to deliver your wedding sermon. You will get a bad sermon.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

undergraduate diaries

After reading Flavia's post on student evaluations, I've been thinking a bit about professors, and how my undergraduate-self perceived them, and how gender figured into those perceptions.

Fortunately, I have a primary source: for the last half-semester of my junior year and most of my senior year, I kept a journal of my adventures in applying to grad school. Well, actually it ended up being a journal of lots of other things as well; I've just been reading about the ins and outs of office politics at my summer job, and I've learned that I dressed as Huey Long's wife (???) for Halloween in 1997 -- but mostly, it focused on academic matters, loosely defined.

Anyway, it's interesting, and a bit disturbing, to read over what I thought about these issues as an undergraduate. I reproduce a passage -- slightly edited to eliminate identifying information, but I've left the language (and the Victorianesque passion for underlining) intact. The context is that I'm commisserating with a friend over her thesis defense, which she passed with high honors, but only after being put through the wringer by a female history professor.

This leads us into a discussion of why young female profs are such bitches. Okay, that's probably the wrong word for [the professor in question], but they do act like they have something to prove. And they dress impeccably, which I know I'll never be able to do. But I think you have to, if you're a woman, to have any hope of getting a job. It does seem like they've all got this generic persona (tough, ultraprofessional, stylish, and brilliant) while men have a lot more freedom to be themselves ... I guess Prof. M--- is living proof that you can go your own way and not feel like you have to cut people's throats all the time; but then she has tenure. (And it's impossible not to take her seriously when you've seen her teach.) It's so unfair. I wish I'd been born a guy. (I keep thinking that, although I've had many terrific female teachers in my life, the ones I've wanted to be like have all been men.)

(Prof. M. was the department hippie, whom I mentioned briefly in my comments at Flavia's. She was awesome, even though she was so gloriously disorganized that I had to sit in her office and address the envelopes myself while she printed out my rec letters for grad school, hours before the deadline.)

Anyway, one of the things I found interesting about this passage was the weird tension between feminism and misogyny. At twenty, I was evidently aware of double standards in the academy and the ways they affected female professors' self-presentation -- yet at the same time, my student-self is clearly buying into some of those gendered expectations and stereotypes. I doubt very much that I would have labeled a tough line of questioning at a thesis defense "bitchy" or "cutthroat" if it came from a man. And the whole rant is bound up in all sorts of anxieties about my own self-presentation, and whether I could ever live up to the profession's unwritten expectations and codes. I don't know what to make of it.

On a lighter note, here's my younger self on the topic of pretentious-assed literary societies:

The Phoenix Society held a poetry reading at the coffeehouse last night -- I was not in attendance, although their fliers urged me to "come here the poetic stylings of several savants, and feel free to throw in your own spiced verse." Idiot savants, apparently, given the spelling. Anyway, I'm not sure any of my poetry could be described as "spiced" -- what are you supposed to do, grate nutmeg into it?

Saturday, May 8, 2010

two years...

So, it's just about two years since I got the job offer from Misnomer U. The campus looks very much as it did when I interviewed; it is the season of magnolias and long slow spring evenings. The fountains drip gently, and the graduating seniors pose in front of fantastic Victorian buildings with their towers and balconies. I fell in love with this place at this time of year. I would have accepted a job offer from almost anywhere, of course, but it was nice to feel that it came from a school I could love.

Today was my first graduation, since I was at Kalamazoo last year. It was nice. Everyone gripes about graduation, but I like the solemnity and ceremony of it, and I'm secretly fond of wearing my robes and hood. It made me feel like I was looking at our campus with fresh eyes again, and finding that the gloss hadn't quite worn off after all, in spite of everything I know now about budget cuts and internal politics and assessment madness and crumbling admissions standards. There's a deeper truth and value underneath it all, and it will endure long after we've forgotten about these ephemera.

I believe in universities. I do. (It would be nice if American society in general, or at least the state higher education board, believed in them with the same fervor, but tonight I am just glad that I have a job I believe in.)

And we have a damned fine crop of graduating seniors in the English department this year -- three of the nine seniors who completed honors theses were ours (four, actually, if you count the double major who did his honors work in a different field), and we've got several others graduating with various flavors of cum laude, including the one student in the graduating class with a perfect 4.0. Good for them. Good for the humanities, in general.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Shakesblogging: The Tempest

What I love about this play: The first scene, on the ship during the storm (which could, again, easily be a throwaway) opens up all of these questions about who gets to wield authority:

Boatswain: You mar our labour. Keep your cabins; you do assist the storm ... What cares these roarers for the name of king? To cabin! Silence; trouble us not.
Gonzalo: Good, yet remember whom thou hast aboard.
Boatswain: None that I love more than myself. You are a councillor; if you can command these elements to silence and work piece of the present, we will not hand a rope more. Use your authority. If you cannot, give thanks you have lived so long and make yourself geady in your cabin for the mischance of the hour, if it so hap ... Out of our way, I say!

And Gonzalo, the nobleman and councilor, is schooled, because the hierarchies of the civilized world are worth nothing against the tempest. (I also love the Boatswain’s curt “Work you, then” – addressed to Sebastian and Antonio, who share Gonzalo’s snobbery but lack his innate decency.)

Pretty much everything else in this play is also about power and authority – who gets to rule the island, who gets to preserve and recount history, and why. Does knowledge confer power? Right of birth? Right of possession? And what happens once all of the characters have found their way to the island, a new world where nearly everything “doth suffer a sea-change / Into something rich and strange”? (Or not. One of the striking things about the island, with all of its magic and wonder and strangeness, is how quickly it starts to mirror the old world. Mostof the characters’ first instinct is to dominate it, and the second is to figure out how they can turn everything to a profit. As Gonzalo imagines a Utopia, Sebastian and Antonio undercut him:)

Gonzalo: I’ th’ commonwealth I would by contraries
Execute all things. For no kind of traffic
Would I admit, no name of magistrate;
Letters should not be known; riches, poverty,
And use of service, none; contract, succession,
Bourn, bound of land, tilth, vineyard, none;
No use of metal, corn, or wine, or oil;
No occupation; all men idle, all;
And women too – but innocent and pure;
No sovereignty –
Sebastian: Yet he would be king on ‘t.
Antonio: The latter end of his commonwealth forgets the beginning.

I get the sense that this has happened before – that Prospero, and probably Sycorax and Caliban before him, have tried to fashion the island into a paradise according to their varying definitions, and have run hard up against human nature. And really, that struggle against our worst natures is what makes this play interesting; Prospero pretty much has everything his own way, and we know that from the start, so the real conflict is between him and his own dark side. I think Ariel’s “Mine would, sir, were I human” line in 5.1. should be a big turning point, dissuading Prospero from a much uglier revenge. Even so, he takes a really freaking long time and an inordinate number of farewell speeches to abdicate his power, which is perhaps just as well, since the speeches are so gorgeous.

Everybody quotes the “Our revels now are ended” bit – which I do love very much – but since it’s not as well known, I think I’ll finish off my month of blogging with this one:

Ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes and groves,
And ye that on the sands with printless foot
Do chase the ebbing Neptune and do fly him
When he comes back; you demi-puppets that
By moonshine do the green sour ringlets make,
Whereof the ewe not bites, and you whose pastime
Is to make midnight mushrooms, that rejoice
To hear the solemn curfew; by whose aid,
Weak masters though ye be, I have bedimm’d
The noontide sun, call’d forth the mutinous winds,
And ‘twixt the green sea and the azured vault
Set roaring war: to the dread rattling thunder
Have I given fire and rifted Jove’s stout oak
With his own bolt; the strong-based promontory
Have I made shake and by the spurs pluck’d up
The pine and cedar: graves at my command
Have waked their sleepers, oped, and let ‘em forth
By my so potent art. But this rough magic
I here abjure, and, when I have required
Some heavenly music, which even now I do,
To work mine end upon their senses that
This airy charm is for, I’ll break my staff,
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,
And deeper than did ever plummet sound
I’ll drown my book.

Favorite memory: This is another one that I got to see at the Globe, this time on my second trip to London in 2000. YOU GUYS I WAS INCHES AWAY FROM VANESSA REDGRAVE PLAYING PROSPERO. I must say this in capital letters. Also, it was generally an awesomely fun show, and the Caliban / Stefano / Trinculo scenes featured fish being thrown into the audience. (There is not, as a general rule, enough fish-throwing at the theater.)

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Shakesblogging: The Winter's Tale

What I love about this play: OMG, Winter’s Tale! This is another one of those plays that tends to reduce me to incoherent squealing: Polixenes talking of those lost days of boyhood innocence, and Leontes losing his sanity in knotty and incoherent language (“Inch-thick, knee-deep, o’er head and ears a fork’d one”), and Paulina being COMPLETELY AWESOME. (There are not enough capital letters in the world for Paulina.) Also, that poignant moment between Hermione and her little son, which is so quiet and ordinary and makes me wonder if Shakespeare might be drawing on his own childhood memories – for surely, he must have been the sort of child who made up stories.

Hermione: Pray you, sit by us,
And tell ‘s a tale.
Mamillius: Merry or sad shall ’t be?
Hermione: As merry as you will.
Mamillius: A sad tale’s best for winter. I have one
Of sprites and goblins.
Hermione: Let’s have that, good sir.
Come on, sit down: come on, and do your best
To fright me with your sprites; you’re powerful at it.
Mamillius: There was a man –
Hermione: Nay, come, sit down; then on.
Mamillius: Dwelt by a churchyard: I will tell it softly;
Yon crickets shall not hear it.

The story is never finished, and poor Mamillius – trying to get a grip on the monsters of the world, as kids do, by putting them in a story – is one of the people who actually die in this play. (While WT is, like all of the romances, steeped in fairy-tale logic and bizarrely plotted, this world feels a little more real to me than the one in Pericles or The Tempest. Not all losses will be restored, and wrongdoing and penitence and expiation are all weighty matters. It feels like a story about real, flesh-and-blood people who happen to find themselves in the middle of a lot of Weird Shit involving sudden accesses of jealousy, oracles, and the occasional ursus ex machina.)

I feel much the same way about the Bohemia scenes. Sure, it’s a magical green world where all kinds of unexpected coincidences occur and problems get worked out, but there are also pickpockets and shopping lists and shepherd girls buying ballads about women turned into fish and speculating breathlessly about whether they’re true. It feels real and human. (Also, I adore the way Perdita is all of the heroines of the tragedies rewritten – in almost everything she says or does, there’s an echo of Juliet or Ophelia or Cordelia – although she herself is unconscious of this fact. But we know. Grace and remembrance be to us, the audience.)

And the last scene is so powerful that I don’t think anything I say can do it justice, but I love the way it preserves the sense of wonder and mystery; there are no long explication scenes, like the ones in the earlier comedies, only questions and awe: “Music, awake her; strike! / ‘Tis time; descend; be stone no more; approach; / Strike all that look upon with marvel.”

Favorite memory: This was the first play I ever saw at the Globe, on my first-ever trip to London. Being twenty-one and an English major and attracted to daft theories involving powerful and dangerous women, I spent most of the plane ride home sketching out a theory that Hermione was, in fact, dead for sixteen years and Paulina revived her through not-so-lawful magic. (I think I may have actually argued this in a paper the next semester; fortunately, it was a Women’s Studies class rather than English, so my utter lack of textual evidence didn’t stand out as much as it might.)

Gratuitous DVD plug: Live version by the RSC. So, so good, especially Autolycus.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Shakesblogging: Pericles

What I love about this play: OK, guilty pleasure time. Pericles has a) dubious literary merits; b) a completely daft and incoherent plot even by Renaissance drama standards; and c) some decidedly uncomfortable messages about gender and sexuality, especially at the beginning, when Pericles falls in love with a princess who’s having an incestuous relationship with her father and rejects her vehemently when he learns the truth (father and daughter are later struck by lightning). Oh, and also at the end, when Pericles’ daughter gets kidnapped by Plot Device Pirates and sold to a brothel, where her resolute chastity converts her would-be client, Lord Lysimachus, who subsequently marries her. (I told you this plot was daft.)

In spite of all this, I have a soft spot for this play, perhaps because I’m an ocean person. Pericles is about as episodic as it gets, and the action ranges over most of the eastern Mediterranean: Antioch, Tyre, Tarsus, Pentapolis, Ephesus, Mytilene, a succession of exotic names and nearly indistinguishable cities. The one constant is the sea, which drives the plot. It’s as unpredictable as fortune itself, prone to storms and “surges / Which wash both heaven and hell.” It destroys life and wealth and sanity, and then restores them again. It gives Marina her name; it induces Pericles to describe himself as “a man whom both the waters and the wind, / In that vast tennis-court, have made the ball / For them to play upon.” Thaisa, apparently dead at sea, is committed to “the belching whale / And humming water”; her coffin is fortuitously tossed ashore in time for the physician Cerimon to revive her.

I also rather like Marina, even though she’s a bit smarmy in her goodness (“I trod once on a worm against my will, / But I wept for it”). She’s the only one of Shakespeare’s heroines who’s a teacher, and I like her determination to make a living while keeping her virtue. And her reunion scene with the ragged, half-mad Pericles is lovely:

Pericles: I embrace you.
Give me my robes. I am wild in my beholding.
O heavens bless my girl! But hark, what music? ...
Helicanus: My lord, I hear none.
Pericles: None!
The music of the spheres! List, my Marina.
Lysimachus: It is not good to cross him; give him way.
Pericles: Rarest sounds! Do ye not hear?
Lysimachus: My lord, I hear.

There’s a fine line, in this play, between delusion and miracle – but against all logic, except the peculiar logic of Shakespearean romance, the miracles are real.

Favorite poem inspired by this play: Marina, by T. S. Eliot

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Shakesblogging: Antony and Cleopatra

What I love about this play: This is easily my favorite of the tragedies. Everything is on a grand, grand scale, particularly the poetry, which is opulent and gorgeous and seductive, and becomes even richer and more laden with hyperbole as the characters start to anticipate the end: “We have kiss’d away / Kingdoms and provinces.” “Come, let’s have one other gaudy night: call to me / All my sad captains; fill our bowls once more; / Let’s mock the midnight bell.” “Where souls do couch on flowers we’ll hand in hand / And with our sprightly port make the ghosts gaze. / Dido and her Aeneas shall want troops.” “I dream’d there was an Emperor Antony... His legs bestrid the ocean; his rear’d arm / Crested the world.”

My favorite bit, probably, is Antony’s speech to Eros right at the end, as he’s starting to grasp how fleeting his own life is and how swiftly everything he was has dissolved:

Sometimes we see a cloud that’s dragonish
A vapour sometime like bear or lion,
A tower’d citadel, a pendent rock,
A forked mountain, or blue promontory
With trees upon’t, that nod unto the world
And mock our eyes with air: thou hast seen these signs.
They are black vesper’s pageants...
... My good knave Eros, now thy captain is
Even such a body.

Naturally, he also reaches for a gambling metaphor – “she, Eros has / Packed cards with Caesar, and false-played my glory” – because he and Cleopatra are gamblers at heart, and they play for absurdly high stakes and lose, just as they do everything else to excess. And this makes them so much more interesting than the sober, sensible Romans. (I recognize that Octavia, in particular, is probably the nicest person in the play, but you see exactly why she leaves Antony so cold.)

Much, much love for the supporting players as well – most of them name-only characters in Plutarch. Charmian and Iras, who laugh off the soothsayer’s prophecies that they “shall be more beloving than beloved” and “have seen and proved a fairer former fortune / Than that which is to approach,” end up having their share of tragic nobleness. And oh, Enobarbus. How do you not love Enobarbus, the blunt-spoken, cynical Roman soldier who is clearly a little in love with Egypt, against his better judgment? (My students last fall didn’t, which baffles me; I suppose they couldn’t forgive him for betraying Antony, but he does have very good reasons, especially if you take Antony’s abuse of poor Thidias as the moment that finally decides him.)

Also, I love Lepidus getting drunk off his head and trying to figure out the crocodile. Too funny.

Favorite memory: I read this for the first time during the Great Blizzard of ‘94, when I was a senior in high school. I can’t remember exactly why – I guess I just thought, “oh, well, we probably won’t have school for a week, might as well read some Shakespeare.” And I baked some cookies, and learned how to ice-skate. We had to stay after school an extra half-hour for the rest of the year – which I thought was sheer torture – but I’ve always been grateful for that week.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Shakesblogging: Macbeth

What I love about this play: It’s so tight and dark and tense, with so many lines that give me the shivers. From Act 1 alone: “Where the Norweyan banners flout the sky / And fan our people cold.” “So foul and fair a day I have not seen.” “Or have we eaten on the insane root / That takes the reason prisoner?” “What thou wouldst highly / That wouldst thou holily.” “The raven himself is hoarse / That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan / Under my battlements.” “Come, thick night / And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell.”

The verse in this play feels intensely imagistic to me – there’s a lot of emphasis on the visual, things seen and partly-seen and unseen, and a lot of recurring visual imagery: blood, birds, fog and smoke and darkness. It’s also just stunning poetry, in general: the long leaden vowels of “Stones have been known to move, and trees to speak”; the slow drag of “tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow.” It cries out to be read aloud.

Some nice character touches: Banquo’s “A heavy summons likes like lead upon me / And yet I would not sleep. Merciful powers / Restrain in me the cursed thoughts that nature / Gives way to in repose.” (I like the hint here that he’s an almost-Macbeth, sleepless while the innocent are sleeping and grappling with the same temptations that Macbeth is, but he manages to rein them in.) I’m also fond of Lady Macbeth’s “What, in our house?”, which is just the sort of awkward and inappropriate thing people do blurt out when they’re in a state of shock, and I can’t for the life of me work out whether it’s the first sign that she’s losing control of the situation, or quite deliberate, and a stroke of brilliance.

(Random question: Has anyone ever seen or heard of a production in which Lady Macbeth’s child actually appears on stage? I’m staring right now at the “Upon my head they placed a fruitless crown, / And put a barren sceptre in my grip,” speech, which I’d always taken to mean that Macbeth didn’t have a living heir, but in context, it actually doesn’t; rather, he’s saying that the witches have done this to him by predicting that Banquo’s children will succeed to the throne. And he doesn’t brood or obsess about his own childlessness at all, as you might expect, just about Fleance’s continued existence. I think the kid could easily be alive at the beginning of the play; really, the only thing pointing against it is Macduff’s “He has no children,” and this could just as easily refer to Malcolm as Macbeth. I also think this could be really interesting in performance, especially if the child eventually meets an awful fate as a result of Macbeth’s choices. Yeah, I’m cruel, but there are dead mothers and dead babies all over this play, and it would fit so well, thematically.)

Favorite memory: Re-reading this for my Shakespeare class last fall. For some reason, I’d never had occasion to read it since I was in college, and I’d only seen one very, very bad stage production during the twelve years in between, so it was this huge rush of re-discovery: how did I forget this play was so good?

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Shakesblogging: King Lear

What I love about this play: I was tempted to say it’s about the end of the world, but I don’t think that’s quite right. It’s about the passing of an old world and the birth of a new one, with all of the attendant blood and agony, and sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference.

And it’s also tempting to see nothing but anarchy and chaos once those old social orders and loyalties collapse, as Gloucester does: “We have seen the best of our time. Machinations, hollowness, treachery, and all ruinous disorders follow us disquietly to our graves.” But I don’t think that’s entirely right either. Edgar, that young man of a half-dozen roles and disguises, represents the best of the new world; so does the politic and practical Albany; so too, I think, does Cornwall’s nameless servant, who defies power and hierarchy to stand up for justice.

I’m inclined to think that Kent also belongs in this world, even though he doesn’t want to live in it. He, too, is very good with the disguises, and I don’t see any reason to think he is really dying at the end of the play; “I have a journey, sir, shortly to go” strikes me as wishful thinking rather than a literal statement of truth. Or maybe I just want him to survive because he’s such a great character. “What wouldst thou do, old man” is such a gut-punch, and it’s also the most respectful thing anybody says to Lear in that first scene, even though he doesn’t see it. And he’s also got some of the best insults ever: “You base football-player.” “Thou whoreson zed! thou unnecessary letter!”

On the other side, there’s Edmund, one of my favorite Shakespearean villains ever (and you can probably tell by now that he’s got a lot of competition). The whole “Gods, stand up for bastards!” speech is delicious – fast-paced, witty, when it’s delivered well it carries you along until you find yourself agreeing with him without stopping to think about what you’re endorsing. I’m glad that he makes good – or tries to – in the end, even though it comes to nothing.

Favorite moment: Edgar transforming himself into Poor Tom. This is one of those short scenes that could so easily be a throwaway – Shakespeare needs to put it in so we know Poor Tom is Edgar and not just the same actor playing a different character, but in his hands, it becomes something so much bigger. This soliloquy grapples with the big questions of the play: What is a man? How close can we come to beasts and still be human? What’s left of us when we lose everything? It also offers some striking answers – the crucifixion imagery of “Bedlam beggars, who, with roaring voices / Strike in their numbed and mortified bare arms / Pins, wooden pricks, nails, sprigs of rosemary.” (Rosemary for remembrance?) And this spectacle, Edgar says, “enforce[s] ... charity.” Which is an amazing idea, really – there’s something essentially redemptive about the “basest and most poorest shape” he’s adopting, something that can bring out the decency in people, a glimmer of the sacred.

Is this too optimistic a reading for Lear? I don’t know; but to me, this play feels like an almost-romance, the same way Othello is an almost-comedy, and the late romances are all about, in Lear’s words, the “chance which does redeem all sorrows.”

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Shakesblogging: Measure for Measure

What I love about this play: Vice laws. Prostitution. Abuse of power. Reassuring proof that political sex scandals worked exactly the same way 400 years ago: the ones caught up in them are always the loudest moral crusaders. One of the tensest, kinkiest seduction scenes in the history of drama, surpassing even Richard and Lady Anne. (Also, “groping for trouts in a peculiar river,” which is the most awesome euphemism for sex since “making the beast with two backs.”)

Continuing my usual practice of Liking the Villain Better, I must confess that I have a lot more sympathy for Angelo than Vincentio. (Oh, all right, I think Angelo is hot. I recognize that what he does to both Isabella and Mariana is appalling, but I’d have capitulated somewhere around “We are all frail” – there’s something about the repressed deputy having to confess that his blood is not, after all, very snow-broth. Also, his soliloquies always get me – the way he recognizes the trap he’s fallen into – “the temptation that doth goad us on / To sin in loving virtue” – and wants to turn away from it, and isn’t strong enough. And then, afterwards, he’s tortured by it: “This deed unshapes me quite ... Would yet he had lived. / Alack, when once our grace we have forgot, / Nothing goes right; we would, and we would not.”)

“Grace” is such a key word in this play; there are constant reminders that “in the course of justice none of us / should see salvation”; grace is the best that humans can hope for, and we’d better start by granting mercy to each other. (I think it’s really Mariana, rather than the Duke or Isabella, who personifies this principle, with her “best men are moulded out of faults” line. I wish we saw more of Mariana.) This is an imperfect philosophy, as imperfect as everything else in this play, and taken to extremes it leads to absurdity (witness Barnardine, who has been in prison for nine years and can’t be executed because he’s perpetually “unmeet for death”). But it’s all we’ve got. And without the ability to give or accept mercy and forgiveness, we’re all Barnardines – “careless, reckless, and fearless of what’s past, present, or to come; insensible of mortality, and desperately mortal,” in the Provost’s chilling words.

Oh, and Isabella is such a fantastic character – smart, eloquent, determined to hold onto her integrity in the face of incredible pressure – but she has to learn to embrace compromise and accept human frailty the hard way. (I like to think her silence is a “no,” by the way; I recognize it’s at odds with the structure of comedy, but so is much else in this play. I think the clue comes early, in Francesca’s explanation of the convent’s peculiar rule: “Then if you speak, you must not show your face; / Or if you show your face, you must not speak.” At the end of Act 5, I believe that once Isabella has made the public accusation she came to make, she considers herself already vowed and subject to the rules of her order.)

Finally: There is a Plot Device Pirate in jail in Vienna. That always cracks me up; was Shakespeare under the impression that Vienna, like Bohemia, possessed a seacoast? (Well, OK, from the character names, he also seems to be under the impression that it’s in Italy, so why not?)

Favorite memory: A Washington University student performance a few years back – probably the single best undergraduate Shakespeare production I’ve ever seen. I think this one shaped a lot of my affection for Angelo, because he was clearly shaken to the core by the revelations of the last scene, to the point where he seemed about to collapse if he hadn’t had Mariana to prop him up, and it made me believe absolutely in their relationship.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Shakesblogging: All's Well That Ends Well, plus bonus cupcakes

Look what I baked for Shakespeare's birthday! Aren't they pretty?

What I love find intriguing about this play: I find this a tough play to love, exactly – it’s got a heroine who’s as clever and determined and independent as any of the girls in the earlier comedies, but all of her brains and courage are invested in the single-minded pursuit of a man who is Very Bad News. And Bertram’s reformation in the end just doesn’t work for me (and I’m a pretty easy sell – I’m willing to accept Claudio and Angelo as changed men, but they both have big, shaken-to-the-core moments that can plausibly lead to realization and repentance. Bertram, on the other hand, tries to lie, slander, and weasel his way out of trouble all through the last scene.) I dunno. In lots of ways, Measure is a much more cynical play, but it also has a powerful message about grace and mercy and the potential for redemption; with All’s Well, the most we get is the king’s equivocal conclusion, “All yet seems well.”

That said, there are some really masterful touches in this play, starting with the language. Like a lot of late-ish Shakespeare, it’s written in a strange idiom, elliptical and riddling and hard to parse, but incredibly expressive. Take, for example, this exchange:

Helena: ... Now shall he –
I know not what he shall. God send him well.
The court’s a learning place, and he is one –
Parolles: What one, i’ faith?
Helena: That I wish well. ‘Tis pity.
Parolles: What’s pity?
Helena: That wishing well had not a body in’t
Which might be felt, that we, the poorer born,
Whose baser stars do shut us up in wishes,
Might with effects of them follow our friends
And show what we alone must think, which never
Returns us thanks.

No wonder poor Parolles is confused; Helena practically never spits out a whole sentence, and the syntax of that last speech is beyond convoluted – but with a sudden flash of clarity and eloquence: “we, the poorer born / Whose baser stars do shut us up in wishes.” (Also, of course, Helena doesn’t directly confide her love for Bertram; she speaks in riddles, almost from the beginning to the end of the play.)

And perhaps, after all, she’s under no illusions about her prospects for happiness with him; the most she says of her hopes for the future is “the time will bring on summer, / When briers shall have leaves as well as thorns, / And be as sweet as sharp.”

Favorite moment: Parolles getting kidnapped by fake Muscovites. Gotta love the gibberish. Throca movosus, cargo, cargo, cargo! Oscorbidulchos volivorco!

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Shakesblogging: Othello

What I love about this play: This is another eminently teachable one. I think it’s partly the fact that it isn’t taught in high schools much, so students don’t come to it with as many preconceptions, and partly the fact that it’s about emotions that are pretty well universal, and not so much about kingship.

I really like the relationship between Desdemona and Emilia – it reminds me a bit of Hero and Beatrice. In fact, this whole tragedy feels so much like a comedy that has missed its way, particularly where the women’s parts are concerned. The Desdemona of Acts 1-3 is a comedy heroine – self-assured enough to defy her father and claim a husband of her own choosing, determined to follow Othello wherever he goes, able to banter with Iago and counter his misogynistic jokes. The pity of it is that she’s not in a comedy. I’m not sure Desdemona ever realizes this, although Emilia certainly does. (I think she’s led a hell of a life with Iago, and she gives him the handkerchief because she is afraid of him, consciously or not. There is a lot of bitterness that breaks out in the “I do think it is their husbands’ fault / If wives do fall” speech, and even more in “‘Tis not a year or two shows us a man: / They are all but stomachs, and we but food; / They eat us hungerly, and when they are full / They belch us.” And then, at last, it turns into outright defiance: “I will not charm my tongue; I am bound to speak.” That is SUCH a tense, taut, terrifying scene. Love it.)

I also can’t help sympathizing with Othello, as horrible a person as he ends up becoming. I think I’m drawn to him because he’s a natural storyteller with an utterly bewitching way with words (I love “antres vast and deserts idle,” as well as the “‘Tis true, there’s magic in the web of it” speech about the handkerchief). But nevertheless he’s hyper-aware that he’s a foreigner, and convinced that the Venetians can run rings around him with their subtlety. And Iago recognizes that insecurity, and exploits it. (I like the fact that Othello goes out telling a story – even if it’s a story in which he’s casting himself as the malignant Turk, the demon to be exorcised. And it’s a powerful, compelling story, one that captivates and disarms the men who are about to arrest him.)

Favorite moment: The scene between Desdemona and Emilia at the end of Act 4. It’s like the calm before the storm – they both know something is very, very wrong, and are doing their best to distract themselves from it. And so the conversation circles around and around all of the things they’re trying to avoid talking about – the story of Barbary, chatter about Lodovico being a proper man, Barbary’s song again; Emilia trying to make a joke of Desdemona’s question, and finally revealing the depth of her anger and bitterness.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Shakesblogging: Troilus and Cressida

What I love about this play: Perhaps “love” is the wrong word, because this is a sordid, unpleasant play, one that I haven’t actually felt much desire to return to. But I’m kind of fond of it because it was my edge-of-adulthood play – one of the many that I read for the first time in freshman Shakespeare, and the one that really resonated with an eighteen-year-old who was starting to get complexity and grey areas.

I was also having my first encounter with real, raw misery, in the person of a roommate who drank too much, slept most of the day, and habitually woke me up when she came in crying at two a.m. I felt like I ought to be sympathetic, but I just wasn’t. In retrospect, I think a lot of her alienation had to do with class and culture; she had been the top student at a tiny high school in rural Virginia, but she was far out of her academic and social comfort zone in college, and knew it. By the time we’d been in college a month, her side of the room was a clutter of dead flowers, empty Zima bottles, and pizza boxes filled with cigarette ash; I had to tiptoe in and out of the room between classes, and I resented it. When I think of Cressida, I think of my roommate: a kid who makes bad choices, but who has been dealt a worse lot, thrust into an alien world and told that she ought to be grateful for it.

Anyway, this is a play that relentlessly tears down the mystique of war, of the classical heroes, and, especially, of romance. In the first scene, Troilus exclaims, “Fools on both sides! Helen must needs be fair, / When with your blood you daily paint her thus.” Hector will later call her “a pearl / Whose price hath launch’d above a thousand ships, / And turn’d crown’d kings to merchants” – a nice little echo and reversal of Marlowe; this is beauty that cheapens men rather than immortalizing them.

Also, props to the ending for its sheer audacity: the only Shakespearean tragedy (and yes, I do think it’s a tragedy) that ends not with some sort of cleansing and redepmtion, but rather with an embittered Troilus chewing out Pandarus, who delivers an epilogue about brothels and syphilis and indicts the audience:

Brethren and sisters of the hold-door trade,
Some two months hence my will shall here be made:
It should be now, but that my fear is this,
Some galled goose of Winchester would hiss:
Till then I’ll sweat and seek about for eases,
And at that time bequeath you my diseases.

Whew. Pandarus just barely slips in a reminder that the conventional epilogue appeals to the audience’s goodwill, and then turns it into a massive “Fuck all of you.” I have to wonder whether this was ever actually delivered, and if so, in what spirit the audience took it.

Favorite memory: “Ulysses just doesn’t get it.”

My freshman Shakespeare prof said this one day, in the sort of voice that makes five rows of heads snap up, as he asked us to turn to the speech about degree.

We’d learned a very ordered, Tillyard-inflected version of How The Universe Works In Shakespeare in high school, and this was the first time anyone had suggested to me that perhaps Shakespeare didn’t entirely believe this particular party line. Click. A whole new world of possibilities.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Shakesblogging: Hamlet

Holy crap, what do you say about Hamlet? I have no idea, which doesn’t bode well for my attempts to teach this play. (I think my classes on it last fall were kind of a flaily mess, and I’m not sure this year will be any better.)

What I love about this play: It has so much stuff packed into it – Big Action Scenes, reams of philosophy, a play-within-a-play (with bonus theatrical in-jokes), murder, madness, skulduggery, skull-digging, and (just for the heck of it) Plot Device Pirates. Oh, and an invasion of Poland, although one might reasonably be forgiven for not noticing that part. I have trouble grappling with this play in the classroom because it feels so overwhelming and overstuffed (and I rather suspect the text we have is the equivalent of a director’s cut DVD with loads of bonus scenes that didn’t make it into the theatrical version), but it’s mostly really interesting stuff.

For some reason, most of the parts of this play that I really like are random, throwaway bits, rather than the famous ones. It goes without saying that I have much love for the ghost’s speech, perhaps the best opening of a ghost story ever:

I could a tale unfold, whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,
Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres,
Thy knotted and combined locks to part
And each particular hair to stand on end,
Like quills upon the fretful porpentine....

Also, Hamlet vs. Polonius is a hoot: “My honourable lord, I will most humbly take my leave of you.” “You cannot, sir, take from me anything that I will more willingly part withal, except my life, except my life, except my life.” (Poor Polonius is still playing straight man when he’s dead: “At supper ... not where he eats, but where he is eaten.” Plus, Hamlet slips in a bonus Diet of Worms joke: seventeenth-century nerd humor at its finest.) Even more awesome is Hamlet’s reply to Claudius’s query, “Where is Polonius?” “In heaven; send thither to see: if your messenger find him not there, seek him i’ the other place yourself. Honestly? Never mind the soliloquies – they’re kind of self-indulgent – it’s the darkly hilarious Hamlet who emerges in dialogue with people he doesn’t like who really wins me over. (I also find it rather endearing that the brilliant, university-educated prince is an absolutely awful poet, like many of the Clever Young Men in Shakespeare, and no great shakes as a theater critic. You can just see the players trying to humor their patron, but rolling their eyes behind his back.)

And to single out one last throwaway bit: oh, the gravediggers. I love the way they’re keenly aware that something is not right in Claudius’s Denmark (“If this had not been a gentlewoman, she should have been buried out of Christian burial”), but the only way they can talk about them is to talk as clowns, a socially sanctioned role for the lower classes, and turn the absurdity of the coroner’s verdict into an even more absurd jest: “she drowned herself in her own defence.”

Favorite memory: This was one of the first Shakespeare plays I ever read. (Because hey, you might as well start big.) My father had gone on a business trip to England, and he brought back a children’s book called Stories from Shakespeare, and for some reason I got bitten by the bug, and decided to read the real thing. And then I tried to make my seven-year-old brother act out the fencing scene, which didn’t go very well because he would only play if he got to be Hamlet, and he always insisted on rising from the dead and yelling “OH YEAH? WHAT ABOUT THE NUNCHUCKS?” So much for “flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.”

Monday, April 19, 2010

Shakesblogging: Twelfth Night

What I love about this play: It’s got some very, very funny moments – Sir Toby and Sir Andrew carousing, Malvolio in his yellow stockings, Viola and Sir Andrew’s duel – but there are also so many grace notes of melancholy and wistfulness to set off the hilarity and give it depth. (You’ve probably gathered by now that I’m a sucker for this sort of tone-play.) Comparing it with Errors is always interesting. Even in the earlier play, there’s real grief and some serious stuff at stake, but in Twelfth Night not all of the losses are recoverable: Olivia’s father and brother are really dead, as is Viola and Sebastian’s father, and the revelations of the last scene leave a handful of characters embittered or alienated rather than mollified. And that potential for sadness makes room for some moments of stunning lyricism, like Viola’s speech from 1.5:

Make me a willow cabin at your gate,
And call upon my soul within the house;
Write loyal cantons of contemned love
And sing them loud even in the dead of night;
Halloo your name to the reverberate hills
And make the babbling gossip of the air
Cry out ‘Olivia!’ O you should not rest
Between the elements of air and earth,
But you should pity me.

(Olivia tries to maintain the skeptical tone she’s been cultivating – “You might do much” – but she’s knocked flat. How could she not be?)

On a similar note, I really love Orsino’s description of the “Come away, death,” song:

Mark it, Cesario, it is old and plain;
The spinsters and the knitters in the sun
And the free maids that weave their thread with bones
Do use to chant it: it is silly sooth,
And dallies with the innocence of love,
Like the old age.

It’s such a lovely, idyllic little sketch of workaday life, but also a bit melancholy, what with the allusion to a lost golden age, and the way the bones for lace-making also provide a neat little reminder of the presence of death (as does the song itself). Really, every word in that scene is so, so right. How in the world did Shakespeare come up with “Our fancies are more giddy and unfirm / More longing, wavering, sooner lost and worn,” when most writers would reach for the convenient phrase “lost and won”? (Having said this, it occurs to me that this just might be a typographical error. If it is, it’s a brilliant one.)

On a lighter note, I really like Sebastian. He’s just so delightfully laid back in situations that would make most people blink at least a little. (Hmm, I seem to have picked up a gay pirate as a traveling companion? Cool. A complete stranger has just pounced on me and decided to marry me? Well, she doesn’t seem to be crazy, so I guess I’ll just roll with it.) He's adorable, in a slightly daft way.

Favorite moment: “O mistress mine,” no question. (Especially in the Trevor Nunn film; this may be my favorite Shakespeare-on-film moment ever.) I have a soft spot for carpe diem poetry, and this is easily my favorite song in Shakespeare, with its acknowledgment that youth and love and laughter are fragile. It’s especially poignant in context – here Feste is, singing to a couple of drunken ne’er-do-wells who are probably past their best years. (I also like the way they call for “a love-song, a love-song” and not “a song of good life,” as if the two are mutually exclusive.)

But don’t take my word for it. Watch for yourself.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Shakesblogging: As You Like It

I have to admit it took me a long, long time to warm up to this play, although part of the problem was that until last summer at the Globe, I’d never seen a really good performance of it. I’m still not as much in love with Rosalind as the rest of the world seems to be. (On the other hand, I think that Celia, who sacrifices her position and inheritance to follow Rosalind into the forest, and who has some nicely sardonic things to say about her cousin’s game-playing, is a highly underrated character.)

What I love about this play: I really like a couple of the bit parts: Corin, who is a real shepherd dropped into this fantasy-pastoral world, and I think it’s hilarious how he can’t make head or tail of the stereotypically lovelorn Silvius. He also holds his own in his defense of country life, even though Touchstone can run verbal rings around him: “Sir, I am a true labourer: I eat that I earn, get that I wear, owe no man hate, envy no man’s happiness, glad of other men’s good, content with my harm, and the greatest of my pride is to see my ewes graze and my lambs suck.” On a similar note, I also love Adam. His entry right after the “seven ages of man” speech provides a nice counterpoint to Jaques’ satirical summary of human life, which is as arid as it is clever; it’s a nice reminder that old age can be filled with loyalty, affection, and value. (Oh, all right, I really like it when the Simple Folk show the Clever Folk up. I think one of my problems with this play is that it’s too darn full of Clever Folk, and most of the plot consists of them wandering around the forest and occasionally bumping into each other and saying witty things.)

That said, I rather like the old Duke even though he’s one of the Clever Folk, and even though his love for the simple country life is just a touch insincere. (Like most of the exiled lords and ladies, he has no intention of staying in the forest at the end of the play – notwithstanding his insistence that “this our life exempt from public haunt / Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, / Sermons in stones, and good in every thing. I would not change it.”) But still, he’s very, very nice, even when Orlando basically mugs him at swordpoint. (This is a great moment, the one real bit of slapstick mayhem in this play, and then it turns into a wholly unexpected celebration of community.)

Favorite moment: Orlando and Jaques trading insults: “I do desire we may be better strangers.” “I pray you, mar no more trees with writing love-songs in their barks.” “I pray you, mar no moe of my verses with reading them ill-favouredly.” “Rosalind is your love’s name? ... I do not like her name.” “There was no thought of pleasing you when she was christened.” Ooh, snap.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Shakesblogging: The Merry Wives of Windsor

What I love about this play: First of all, I love the slightly askant relationship it has with the history plays. It doesn’t quite fit into the histories’ chronology, but I like to think of it as an alternate ending – a sort of subversive mirror for Henry V, where the kings and nobles are the ones banished from the stage, and the tavern characters find a space where they can live and thrive. Windsor is above all expansive, a little suspicious of the court and of outsiders, but ultimately generous, even with ne’er-do-wells. I like the fact that Pistol and Mistress Quickly have parts in the fairy pageant in the final scene (and that Quickly, in her second turn as player-queen, gets to be the one to pronounce the final blessing on Windsor Castle – which suggests something rather interesting about the interdependence of ruler and subject). I don’t know that it’s a complete reversal of the power politics in the history plays – which incorporate, after all, plenty of challenges to top-down rule – but it’s certainly a world in which one can imagine all kinds of possibilities that are foreclosed in the histories.

And I adore Alice Ford and Margaret Page, who are the kind of women that I can easily imagine the heroines of the other comedies becoming when they are older: competent, witty, able to recognize and laugh at their own blind spots, and devoted to each other as much as they are to their husbands. It’s like having a glimpse of Rosalind and Celia, or Beatrice and Hero, at forty, and it’s lovely. It’s also nice to see middle-aged, middle-class women getting to do something interesting and fun.

We don’t see that much of Anne Page – unlike in the other comedies, the young lovers aren’t really the point – but she does have some nice moments in 3.4. I like her slightly skeptical attitude toward Fenton, as well as her reaction to the prospect of marrying Slender: “I had rather be set quick i’ the earth / And bowled to death with turnips.”

Favorite memory: Actually visiting Windsor for the first time. I’d been blithely writing away about how the final scene takes place literally in the shadow of Windsor Castle, but I hadn’t realized that the whole play does: it’s massive, it’s on a hill, it dwarfs the town. What’s cool is that it doesn’t dwarf the play; the court is mentioned now and again, and we see characters going and coming from there, but it’s always in the background, and it’s the ordinary lives that matter.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Shakesblogging: Henry V

What I love about this play: I hardly know where to begin. I guess I’ll start by saying that it exemplifies a lot of the stuff I love about Shakespeare, especially in the complicated balance between the sordid and glorious faces of war, and between Henry’s admirable and reprehensible qualities. It’s a play that presents multiple viewpoints persuasively and makes room for multiple perceptions of the same event. Most readers, myself included, aren’t really up for dealing with that level of negative capability. Frankly, I always have to struggle to give Henry his props, since my own sympathies are with Pistol and Bardolph, and especially with Michael Williams, my favorite bit-part character in Shakespeare. But he is very, very good at what he does, and I think he honestly believes in justice – “the quittance of desert and merit / According to the weight and worthiness” – and tries to see it done. Also, I defy anyone not to get the shivers at the St. Crispin’s Day speech, and I think it’s heartfelt.

That said, I always get even more shivery at Michael Williams’s challenge to Henry’s entire ethos: “But if the cause be not good, the king himself hath a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and arms and heads, chopped off in a battle, shall join together at the latter day and cry all, ‘We died at such and such a place’; some swearing, some crying for a surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind them, some upon the debts they owe, some upon their children rawly left.” How do you answer that? The king doesn’t, really – Williams gets a glove full of gold and a pardon for speaking his mind, but the bigger questions linger.

Also, Pistol’s exit at the beginning of Act 5 breaks my heart: the disaffected former soldier who has lost everything that anchors him to society and is still trying to make a go of survival – by cheating, stealing, any way he can.

Favorite moment: Falstaff’s impromptu wake, which is also the last moment the tavern characters are together. You’ve probably gathered by now that I have a soft spot for all of them, but especially for Bardolph (“Would I were with him, wheresome’er he is, either in heaven or in hell”) and Mistress Quickly (“Nay, surely, he’s not in hell, he’s in Arthur’s bosom if ever man went to Arthur’s bosom.”) It’s such a poignant scene, and all the more so because the best way they know how to memorialize Falstaff is by retelling his jests. It’s also the last time they’ll ever see each other.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Shakesblogging: Henry IV, Part 2

What I love about this play: Most people don’t rate Part 2 as high as Part 1, and I have to admit that the first two acts sag a little – although they do have my favorite Prince Hal moment, that conversation with Poins in which he almost owns up to grieving for his father’s sickness, and Poins misses the gravity of what he’s trying to say. The last three are like setting off a string of firecrackers. There’s the “uneasy lies the head” speech, and our first glimpse of the ordinary country folk, and dirty tricks at Gaultree Forest, and Henry’s death scene (during which he drops not one, but two bombshells about that crusade he’s been planning for the last three plays; first, that it is a calculated move to “busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels.” And then, when we’ve scarcely absorbed this seemingly Machiavellian counsel, he reveals that he has always believed he’ll die there, and has been voicing this death wish all along without any of the other characters recognizing it for what it is). And then “I know thee not, old man” – a punch to the gut, no matter how many times I read it or watch it.

This is kind of a diffuse, decentered play – it’s named after a king that we don’t even see until Act 3, and who promptly dies in Act 4. If there’s a hero, I think it has to be Falstaff. I love the way that, after all of his shenanigans in Part 1, he turns out to have his own brand of courage – the courage to jest in the face of aging and sickness and death.

I really like the little interlude between Falstaff and Doll Tearsheet, observed by Hal and Poins, who see the absurdity of the relationship but miss its poignancy – “Do not speak like a death’s head, Doll; do not bid me remember mine end.” (Poor Doll. She’s dying of syphilis, which is a horrible way to go despite all the uneasy jokes that the characters make about it, and she sincerely loves Falstaff. I love the way even the bit parts get infused with humanity.)

Favorite moment: The scenes at Justice Shallow’s, with everyone having wine and pippins in the orchard, and Silence getting drunk, and all those glimpses of everyday life – bills to pay, conversation about the price of cattle, reminiscences about old friends. It’s a moment of warmth in an increasingly chilly and impersonal play, and it’s sweet and low-key and a bit tragic, because you know what’s coming, at least for Falstaff. Above all, it’s stable; in spite of all these convulsions in the state, things have not, after all, changed so much for the majority of the English.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Shakesblogging: Henry IV, Part 1

What I love about this play: This installment begins more or less where the previous one left off, with Henry’s resolution “to chase these pagans in those holy fields / Over whose acres walk’d those blessed feet / Which fourteen hundred years ago were nail’d / For our advantage on the bitter cross.” It never happens. Shaky alliances break down and civil war intervenes. Meanwhile, the story opens out: from the slightly claustrophobic world of the nobility we move into the Boar’s Head tavern, where Falstaff does impressions of the king with a pillow on his head, Mistress Quickly gets drafted to act the part of his “tristful queen,” and Hal deposes him unceremoniously.

I think that scene pushes every last one of my Shakespeare buttons: metatheater, kingship as performance, reversals between high and low, the sudden shift in tone from high hilarity to Falstaff’s recognition that he’s pleading for his life and Hal’s chilly “I do, I will.” And then there’s a knock on the door, and Falstaff protests, “Play out the play: I have much to say in the behalf of that Falstaff,” but he never gets the chance. I love that scene so much; there’s the cold edge of foreshadowing, but also so much warmth and wine and laughter in the moment, and it’s a rare glimpse of what these kings must look like to their subjects.

Also, the byplay between the rebels is delicious: Glendower sincerely believes he’s got magical superpowers; Hotspur, who has no patience for this sort of thing, relentlessly undercuts him; Mortimer, the man who would be king, is stuck running interference between the two. (“I can call spirits from the vasty deep.” “Why so can I, or so can any man / But will they come when you do call for them?”) And then Lady Percy and Lady Mortimer come out – two young women, neither of whom is going to keep her husband very long – and Lady Mortimer sings a song in Welsh, which is the only language she knows, and it all turns strangely melancholy and haunting.

Favorite one-liner: (I’m too tired tonight to think of anything except one-liners.)

Worcester: ... I do protest
I have not sought the day of this dislike.
King: You have not sought it! How comes it, then?
Falstaff: Rebellion lay in his way, and he found it.

Rebellion is always lying in people’s way in the history plays. Funny how that happens...

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Shakesblogging: Richard II

What I love about this play: It opens so many conversations and sets so many threads in motion: what is kingship? Who gets to decide who will be king? What drives history – Providence, human agency, happenstance? What is history good for, anyway? Is there any room for women and commoners in all of this?

The play starts with an abortive trial by combat – which only makes sense, as a means of determining justice, if you believe that Providence takes a direct hand in human affairs. (It’s not clear that either of the combatants actually believes this, although I think King Richard does. I also don’t think the play leaves the slightest ambiguity about whether Richard bears any guilt in Woodstock’s murder. Of course he’s guilty. He wouldn’t be so dead set on stopping the combat if he weren’t.) The king’s word is, for the moment, absolute, save for the one crucial limitation that John of Gaunt voices: “Shorten my days thou canst ... but not lend a morrow.”

So by the end of the play, Richard, a lawful and anointed king, has been deposed and murdered; Henry Bolingbroke is king; and nothing is absolute. The world seems to be completely changed – thrown into chaos, if you read it one way; opened up to new and exciting possibilities, if you’re inclined to believe that kingship should be determined by ability rather than birthright. Except, not. In a lot of bitterly ironic ways, we’re back where we started – a king suffering from blood-guilt, a banishment, a lot of tense alliances that we know are about to fall apart. And Henry’s desire to “make a voyage to the Holy Land / To wash this blood off from my guilty hand” suggests that he is, after all, afraid that Providence will have retribution. (It also suggests a bunch of other stuff as well, of course, if you know everything about Henry’s motives, but he won’t be revealing them for another two plays.)

Favorite moment(s): Richard’s description of Bolingbroke’s “courtship to the common people ... What reverence he did throw away on slaves, / Wooing poor craftsmen with the craft of smiles ... Off goes his bonnet to an oyster-wench.” Even while Richard affects to find this absurd, he’s also implicitly acknowledging that political power is a craft like any other skilled trade and not merely a birthright; I think this is the moment when he realizes, somewhere in the back of his mind, that he’s screwed.

I also really like the bit with Aumerle and the Duchess of York in Act 5. It’s a nice little comedic subplot in a play that is otherwise relentlessly tragic, and it offers an alternative set of values to the power politics that shape most of the action: “I pardon him as God shall pardon me.” (This is perhaps the last time mercy and forgiveness will carry the day in the histories, except in isolated corners of the kingdom like Justice Shallow’s Gloucestershire. It’s nice that it works out.)