Archive for the 'Shout Out' Category

Shakespeare Anagram: Henry V

Saturday, July 22nd, 2017

After months and months of indignant denials, the Trump administration is finally being made to confront hard evidence of their campaign’s collusion with the Russians. To be clear, there’s not any evidence that they colluded in the Russians’ election-tampering, but there was definitely ongoing communication between the Trump people and the Russian government, and about the election.

Donald Trump Jr. was forced to reveal that he met with a Russian lawyer in June 2016 because he wanted campaign dirt on Hillary Clinton. The suspicious nature of the revelation was exacerbated by a string of lies and omissions surrounding this meeting. But the important thing to remember is that he was told in advance that this meeting was part of the Russian efforts to help the Trump campaign. There’s just no way to get around that.

And now we learn that the meetings that Jeff Sessions held with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak were about the campaign after all, despite Sessions’ repeated insistence to the contrary, and this only after the secret meetings were revealed in the first place.

We really do need to let Mueller finish his investigation before we jump to any conclusions, but it’s not looking good for the Trump team. I don’t know; what do you think, Shakespeare?

From Henry V:

Their faults are open:
Arrest them to the answer of the law;
And God acquit them of their practises!

Shift around the letters, and it becomes:

Where Russian attachés offer to approach little frat squirt Don, and he’s eager to meet with them.

And I have send a special shout out to the brilliant Randy Rainbow, who’s like a modern-day Schoolhouse Rock for grown-ups.

Shakespeare Follow-Up: Cosmology

Friday, October 4th, 2013

The inaugural Shakespeare Follow-Up is dedicated to Rebecca.

As she can tell you, when Puck is first introduced in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, he meets a fairy who tells him:

I do wander every where,
Swifter than the moone’s sphere;

But what is the moon’s “sphere” and why should we believe it is particularly swift? To fully appreciate this line, and many like it across the canon, it’s important to know a little bit about how Shakespeare and his contemporaries viewed the cosmos.

In the Metaphysics, Aristotle described a system of concentric spheres, based on the works of pre-Socratic philosphers. Each observable planetary body, including the Moon, was embedded in one of these spheres. The spheres were made of transparent matter, in contact with one another, and able to rotate independently. (Positing a thin layer of WD-40 between spheres would have been beyond the technological capabilities of the ancient Greeks.) The Moon’s sphere was the closest to the Earth, and therefore, could move the fastest. This was followed by Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and the sphere of the stars. Outside the spheres was the Prime Mover, which is the original source of all motion. God, if you like.

Claudius Ptolemy was an astronomer living in Alexandria in the 2nd century AD, while Egypt was part of the Roman Empire. Ptolemy noticed that some of the data, particularly retrograde motions of the planets, could not be explained by the existing model. He added the idea of epicycles, spheres rotating within spheres, which allowed for irregular movement of the planets, and the concept remained the dominant cosmological model for centuries.

Around the 12th century, Aristotelian concepts (including Ptolemaic cosmology) became intertwined with Christian theology. By the time Copernicus developed his heliocentric model in the early 16th century, it was not only a challenge to Aristotle and Ptolemy, but also to Church teachings that God put man in the center of the universe.

This is the world that Shakespeare and Galileo were born into in 1564. The theories of Copernicus were known, but not commonly accepted as true. It should be noted, however, that even Copernicus accepted the idea of celestial spheres; he just put the Sun in the center instead of the Earth. Shakespeare makes reference to the spheres all throughout his plays, often metonymously for the cosmos as it affects our fates, or simply as a shared cultural reference.

So the Bastard in King John can ask “Now, now, you stars, that move in your right spheres,/ Where be your powers?” as Demetrius in A Midsummer Night’s Dream observes “Yet you, the murderer, look as bright, as clear,/ As yonder Venus in her glimmering sphere.”

Fixed and unchangeable, the spheres also serve as a convenient metaphor for the rightfulness of hierarchies here on Earth. Shakespeare draws this comparison often, most notably in this speech from Ulysses in Troilus and Cressida:

The heavens themselves, the planets, and this centre
Observe degree, priority, and place,
Insisture, course, proportion, season, form,
Office, and custom, in all line of order:
And therefore is the glorious planet Sol
In noble eminence enthron’d and spher’d
Amidst the other; whose med’cinable eye
Corrects the ill aspects of planets evil,
And posts, like the commandment of a king,
Sans check, to good and bad: but when the planets
In evil mixture to disorder wander,
What plagues, and what portents, what mutiny,
What raging of the sea, shaking of earth.
Commotion in the winds, frights, changes, horrors,
Divert and crack, rend and deracinate
The unity and married calm of states
Quite from their fixure!

When we see the Sun referred to as “the glorious planet Sol,” it has the power to remind us just how much distance is between the scientific understanding of Shakespeare’s time and our own. And reading this in 21st century America, we also feel the gap in worldview as we see hierarchic culture defended so fiercely. Both celestial spheres and geocentrism will likewise fade in the century following Shakespeare’s death, but the ideas remain forever embedded in Shakespeare like the planets in their spheres. Thus, we understand that when, in 1 Henry IV, Hal tells Hotspur that “Two stars keep not their motion in one sphere,” it’s Elizabethan for “This town ain’t big enough for the both of us.”

Astronomers during Shakespeare’s lifetime, most notably Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler, already began using observational data to cast doubts about both geocentrism and the celestial spheres. The observation of comets was making the sphere model difficult to maintain. Galileo also took up the idea of heliocentrism and, after a long battle with the Church, was pressured into recanting. But the theories of Isaac Newton and the Scientific Revolution later in the 17th century gave heliocentrism a much stronger grounding in modern science which led to a wider acceptance as the culture became more open to the reexamination of our scientific understandings.

It wasn’t until the 20th century, however, that science learned that none of these models was the center of the universe, but rather one solar system among billions across a vast sprawling cosmos.

One can only wonder what Shakespeare might have done with such a revelation.

Shakespeare High

Tuesday, January 22nd, 2013

New research from Liverpool University shows that Shakespeare (and other classical writers) can stimulate the brain. For me, what stood out from earlier studies, was the attention to the duration of the phenomenon:

The study went on to test how long the effect lasted. It found that the “peak” triggered by the unfamiliar word was sustained onto the following phrases, suggesting the striking word had hooked the reader, with their mind “primed for more attention”.

This means that if you’re experiencing a work by Shakespeare, who is constantly throwing these poetic curve balls, you can sustain the brain boost over long periods of time. I’ve certainly experienced this sensation many times. I’ll basically go to see any Shakespeare play, regardless of the venue, just so I can hear these words spoken to me. I participate in a monthly Shakespeare reading group, and feel the effect even more profoundly when I am the one reading the words.

Even seeing the text written can do the job, though I often pause a lot when reading and so the pace isn’t necessarily the same. But the research shows an increase in reflection as well, so perhaps that’s a different manifestation of the effect. I subscribe to a Twitter feed that only tweets the plays themselves, one line every ten minutes like clockwork. Every now and then I’ll hit a familiar line and feel the brain bolt. I don’t know why that should be, but I get my shot to the brain all the same.

If I’m doing something that requires no mental attention, I’ll listen to an audio lecture. If I’m doing something that requires my full attention, I’ll listen to music. But if I’m doing something tedious that needs some focus but provides no mental stimulation, I’ll listen to Shakespeare. I’ll typically choose an audio production that I’ve listened to many times before, so I don’t need to be an engaged audience member the whole time. But I find that I can keep my conscious mind engaged on the task much more easily if my subconscious mind is swept away on a wave of poetic bliss. And when a line or two does drift into my awareness, I know the play well enough that I can enjoy it out of context, much like I do the Twitter feed. I get the hit without having to break my stride.

This is your brain on Shakespeare. Any questions?

Shakespeare’s Most Underrated Characters

Sunday, August 5th, 2012

Over at Pursued by a Bear, Cassius put together a series of videos lauding Shakespeare’s Most Underrated Characters back while I was on hiatus. They’re definitely worth checking out. Even when you disagree with one of her choices, she makes a compelling case.

Still, she includes such “underrated characters” as Hamlet and Othello. And while I totally get that a character can be highly rated and yet underrated, a list like this is an opportunity to bench the starters and let the minor characters show their stuff. Basically, what I’m saying is, I want to play too. Now that I’m back, here is my list, with a hat tip to Cassius for the idea.

An old theatre maxim says there are no small parts, but below you’ll find some really outstanding exceptions. Some of them don’t even have names. If your reaction to seeing some of these is “Wait… who?” then I’ve done my job. But don’t dismiss them just yet; they’re on this list for a reason. Let’s start the countdown at 50.

50. Costard (Love’s Labour’s Lost) – With so many foolish characters in one play, it’s easy to overlook the actual clown. But Costard spins some impressively deft wordplay that puts more erudite characters to shame.

49. Pinch (The Comedy of Errors) – Just as things get about as silly as you think they could get, enter good Doctor Pinch. While others suspect Antipholus of mere madness, Pinch tries to exorcize Satan from within him.

48. Fluellen (Henry V) – The Welsh captain may speak his bombast with a funny accent, but he’s not a man to be trifled with. He bravely leads his troops into battle, and handles himself ably in private matters as well.

47. The Scottish Doctor (Macbeth) – A doctor is brought in to cure Lady Macbeth’s madness. Sadly, modern psychiatric practice would be far beyond the reach of Shakespeare’s England, let alone Macbeth’s Scotland.

46. Peter Quince (A Midsummer Night’s Dream) – It can’t be easy to construct a troupe of actors from weavers and tailors, but this is one carpenter who is up to the task. Ah, the joys of community theatre.

45. Antipholus of Ephesus (The Comedy of Errors) – The other three twins may have more stage time, but the funniest moments of the play come from the misfortunes that befall the local Antipholus.

44. Corin (As You Like It) – The old forest-dwelling shephard councils the younger love-struck Silvius, matches wits with Touchstone, and reminds us that courtly life isn’t better than the simple life, just different.

43. Antonio (Twelfth Night) – Sebastian’s savior and friend mentions that he happens to be a wanted criminal. But his love and loyalty prove to be powerful forces, as is his rhetoric when he thinks he’s been betrayed.

42. Paulina (The Winter’s Tale) – Hermione may have been the one to fake her death, but it’s Paulina who has to sell it. And sell it she does, without so much as flinching. Note to self: stay on Paulina’s good side.

41. Joan La Pucelle (1 Henry VI) – Joan of Arc, the peasant girl who led troops in winning great battles against the English, was a revered heroine among the French people. Of course, Shakespeare wasn’t French.

40. Oliver and Celia (As You Like It) – They seem like they’re going to be purely functional roles: Orlando’s evil brother and Rosalind’s supportive cousin. And then, boom, they meet and it’s love at first sight.

39. Chorus (Henry V) – The “muse of fire” prologue stands out, but the Chorus stays on the job throughout the play, adding vibrant imagery to expand the theatrical experience beyond the limitations of the stage.

38. Adam (As You Like It) – Rather than embody the bleak vision of Jacques’s last age of man, the spry Adam warns Orlando of the plot against him and faithfully agrees to serve him in exile. Eighty years young!

37. Pompey (Measure for Measure) – Not quite Pompey the Great, his bum is the greatest thing about him. Sent to prison, the former brothel bartender feels right at home among his old customers.

36. First and Second Lords (All’s Well That Ends Well) – This list has a soft spot for characters who aren’t even given names. The Lords are real characters that help advance the plot over multiple scenes. No respect!

35. Duke Senior (As You Like It) – A lesser man might be slightly annoyed by having his entire dukedom usurped. But Duke Senior takes “being a good sport” to a whole new level. And notice he’s not given a name either.

34. Charmian and Iras (Antony and Cleopatra) – When Cleopatra chooses to leave this world, she is flanked by her two most loyal servants – Iras just before and Charmian just after. Good help is hard to find.

33. Lord Stanley, Earl of Derby (Richard III) – Richard is so crazed with paranoia that when he accuses Stanley of betrayal, we completely believe the good earl’s denial. But wait… yeah, he went right to Richmond.

32. Archibald, Earl of Douglas (1 Henry IV) – “That sprightly Scot of Scots… that runs o’ horseback up a hill perpendicular” is outbattled by Hal, outwitted by Falstaff, and ultimately captured and released. Ah well.

31. Son and Father (3 Henry VI) – On the battlefield, Henry observes a son who has killed his father and a father who has killed his son. He thus realizes the heavy cost of the war, and his own responsibility for it.

30. The Thane of Ross (Macbeth) – Whether it’s victory in battle or the slaughter of your family, nobody delivers the news like the Thane of Ross, whatever his actual name may happen to be.

29. Roderigo (Othello) – Often overshadowed by the more dynamic characters in the play, Roderigo is a fantastic comic role. Hopelessly in love with Desdemona, Roderigo is an easy target for Iago’s machinations.

28. Iachimo (Cymbeline) – This “little Iago” deserves better than to be thought of as a diminutive derivative. But unlike his nefarious namesake, he never really meant any harm, and is honestly repentant at the end.

27. Lord (The Taming of the Shrew) – We remember Christopher Sly, but what of the Lord who devised the over-the-top prank in the first place. Actually, either one could make this list; they usually both get cut.

26. The Provost (Measure for Measure) – When the Duke realizes he can no longer implement his plan alone, he recruits the Provost, who proves to be an able accomplice. But why does he not have a name?

25. The Queen (Cymbeline) – She’s the classic fairy tale wicked step-mother, who even has the self-awareness to swear she isn’t. On her deathbed, she admits she never loved Cymbeline. It’s good to be the Queen.

24. The Earl of Suffolk (1 Henry VI) – He woos the young Margaret for the king, but has some grand designs of his own. “Margaret shall now be queen, and rule the king; But I will rule both her, the king, and realm.”

23. Casca (Julius Caesar) – Other characters consider him dull, blunt, and rude, but don’t take their word for it. I find Casca to be witty, wise, and shrewd. Read over his lines and decide for yourself.

22. Countess of Auvergne (1 Henry VI) – Talbot takes a break from invading France to be flattered by the noblewoman’s invitation to her house. It’s a trap, but she ends up having him over for Freedom Fries anyway.

21. Rumor (2 Henry IV) – Best. Prologue. Ever. The living embodiment of Rumor brags about the damage he’s done, while seamlessly bringing us up to speed on what’s happened since Part One. Open your ears.

20. Simpcox and Wife (2 Henry VI) – They are almost the definition of small Shakespearean roles. But their scene is genuinely laugh-out-loud funny. Go check it out!

19. Mariana (Measure for Measure) – She shows up late in the play, and even then she’s no more than a convenient plot device with very few lines of significance. But then the final scene arrives, and … wow.

18. The Bishop of Carlisle (Richard II) – Richard is defeated, and Henry would be King. Carlisle protests vigorously, describing exactly what will result. As Shakespeare and his audience know, he’s absolutely right.

17. Antonio (The Tempest) – I have to admit that some of the nobles from the boat tend to blend together for me, but Antonio, who usurped his brother Prospero, stands out as the most cold-blooded.

16. Moth (Love’s Labour’s Lost) – Compare Don Adriano de Armado and Moth with Zap Brannigan and Kif. Note that Kif’s first Futurama episode was entitled “Love’s Labour’s Lost in Space.”

15. Mistress Overdone (Measure for Measure) – She’s had nine husbands (“overdone by the last”) and this clear-eyed brothel owner still manages to run her business like a professional.

14. Gratiano (The Merchant of Venice) – It’s okay if you don’t remember. He’s the other guy, the one who ends up with Nerissa. But he’s also a really clever comic character who can be a lot of fun to play.

13. John Talbot (1 Henry VI) – He only appears in a couple of scenes, but Lord Talbot’s son can display valor and loyalty in rhymed couplets like nobody else.

12. Thersites (Troilus and Cressida) – Shakespeare describes him as “a deformed and scurrilous Grecian,” and that’s just in the Dramatis Personae.

11. Lord Chief Justice (2 Henry IV) – Henry V’s harsh denial of Falstaff overshadows the new king giving a high place of honor to the constable who chased him down throughout his wayward youth.

10. Doll Tearsheet (2 Henry IV) – Falstaff’s favorite prostitute knows how to handle herself in a bar fight. She gives Pistol a tongue-lashing he really should have had to pay for.

9. Apemantus (Timon of Athens) – Oh yeah, I went there. But you don’t have to read the whole play, just check out the mother joke in the first scene.

8. Pistol (Henry V) – The loudmouth soldier tends to get overshadowed by Falstaff. But his bombast can shatter the stage when he’s ready to discharge.

7. Domitus Enobarbus (Antony and Cleopatra) – He’s a loyal soldier who abandons Antony only because he can’t support his self-destructive behavior. When Antony returns his treasure, Enobarbus dies of shame.

6. Arthur (King John) – He has few scenes, despite being an important character to the plot. He makes the list for successfully appealing to the heart of a man who has been sent to murder him.

5. Lady Grey (3 Henry VI) – After her side has lost the war, the Widow Grey bravely stands up to the new King. He cannot intimidate her, so he marries her instead. She’ll be Queen Elizabeth in the next play.

4. Sir William Catesby (Richard III) – We remember the evil machinations of Richard and Buckingham, but Catesby is there with them every step of the way, and seems to have no conscience about it.

3. Tranio (The Taming of the Shrew) – It’s easy to forget about Tranio. But while his master is playing servant to win his one true love, Tranio’s the servant who is playing his master – the much harder role!

2. First Gravedigger (Hamlet) – Often dismissed as merely a comic character, the Gravedigger gives Hamlet a chance to reflect on matters of life and death, thus underscoring one of the major themes of the play.

1. Jack Cade (2 Henry VI) – He’s an unlikely claimant to the throne, but his populist rhetoric has the power to start a rebellion at least. This is, I believe, Shakespeare’s most underrated character.

And finally, I invite my friends at Pursued By a Bear to join me in awarding an honorable mention to the most awesome, most minor character in the entire canon…

THE BEAR!

Shakespeare Song Parody: Filled with Woe

Friday, August 3rd, 2012

I’ve long enjoyed the Shakespeare song parodies posted by Bardfilm and ShakespeareGeek. Now, it’s my turn to join in the fun. If this works out, maybe I’ll make it a regular feature.

The idea is to take a popular song and change the words so that it’s about Shakespeare. Here is my first attempt. Enjoy!

Filled with Woe
sung to the tune of “Somebody That I Used to Know”

(With apologies to Gotye, Kimbra, and my readers…)

Now and then I think of when you were my whole tomorrow,
Like when I kissed you at your father’s masquerade;
Told myself that you were right for me,
But felt alone under your balcony,
And yet I always felt that parting was such sweet sorrow.

You can get addicted to a certain kind of sadness,
Like how we know our parents never would approve;
So when you heard that I was banishéd,
Well, you said that we would still be wed,
But I’ll admit that I feared it was over.

But you didn’t have to kill yourself,
Taking poison on your wedding day and come to nothing,
And losing you was hard enough,
But you’re lying dead near Tybalt and that feels so rough.

O, you didn’t have to do this, no,
But I bought some poison, killed Count Paris, now I join your number;
Thus, with a kiss, I let you go,
Now I die somebody who is filled with woe!

Now I die somebody who is filled with woe!
Now I die somebody who is filled with woe!

* * *

Now and then I think about our plan to stay together,
And now I’m guessing that you never really got my note;
A pity you did not survive,
Because the whole time I was still alive;
Thy lips are still warm, Romeo,
And so, happy dagger, kill me –
I’m somebody who is filled with woe!

* * *
Somebody!
Filled with woe!
Somebody!
Filled with woe!

Now I die somebody who is filled with woe!

Connecting Students with the Language

Wednesday, August 1st, 2012

Just as we make Shakespeare more relevant to our students by drawing modern-day connections to his plots and characters, so too can we use the elements of today’s world to make connections to his language.

Sometimes when I teach iambic pentameter, I feel like my students can be like the syllables in that very meter: about half of them are stressed and half of them are unstressed. Whichever half you’re in, you should enjoy Pentametron. This is a website that searches Twitter for tweets that are naturally in iambic pentameter. It then somehow sorts them into rhymed couplets and groups them 14 lines to a page.

It’s intriguing to see instances of unintentional meter. Here are a few quick examples (slightly edited in the retype):

I will forever love The Cosby Show.
Whatever, ready for tomorrow, though.
I haven’t eaten anything today.
I really want to dance the night away.
That breakfast sandwich didn’t stand a chance.
So… what’s the definition of romance?
It’s pretty much already Thursday, damn.
Bob Dylan IS the Tupac hologram.

Click through to see many more. Some of the language is a little salty to use the actual website in the classroom, but it’s a good place to find examples of natural language iambic pentameter and with social media cred to boot! Note that these people aren’t deliberately writing in iambic pentameter, but they ended up doing it anyway. This can help you to make the meter less intimidating for students, and to make the point, as some have argued, that iambic pentameter mimics common natural English language patterns.

I’ve written before about using song lyrics to teach poetic devices, but “Mosh” is about eight years old and I’ve been searching and searching for a more recent song that would be just as useful.

Ladies and gentlemen, we have a winner.

From “More” as performed by Usher
Written by Hinshaw, Khayat, and Raymond
Watch me as I dance under the spotlight-
Listen to the people screaming out more and more,
‘Coz I create the feeling that keep ’em coming back,
Yeah, I create the feeling that keep ’em coming back,
So captivating when I get it on the floor.

Know y’all been patiently waiting, I know you need me, I can feel it,
I’m a beast, I’m an animal, I’m that monster in the mirror,
The headliner, finisher, I’m the closer, winner.
Best when under pressure with seconds left I show up.

If you really want more, scream it out louder,
Get it on the floor, bring out the fire,
And light it up, take it up higher,
Gonna push it to the limit, give it more.

Literary devices
Repetition: “more and more,” “I create the feeling that keep ‘em coming back”

Rhyme: more/floor, fire/higher

Alliteration: “monster in the mirror,” create/coming/captivating

Assonance: “patiently waiting,” finisher/winner, Best/pressure/seconds, “limit/give it”

Lists: “I’m a beast, I’m an animal, I’m that monster in the mirror, the headliner, finisher, I’m the closer, winner.”

Antithesis: Get it on the floor/take it up higher

You can have students analyze these lyrics side-by-side with a speech from Shakespeare and compare how the two texts use the same devices. They can then find more examples within the play you are teaching or song lyrics they bring in. They can even start using these devices in their own poetic creations!

May the Fourth…

Wednesday, May 4th, 2011

…be with you.

Today is Star Wars Day, and Shakespeare Geek and Bardfilm made sure that Shakespeare got in on the action. For my contribution… No, I’m not going to compare Luke Skywalker to Hamlet, at least not today. But I would like to share how the Star Wars franchise has made teaching Shakespeare just a little bit easier.

A series of three related dramatic works is called a trilogy. Four works make a tetralogy. Early in Shakespeare’s career, he wrote a tetralogy of plays about the English kings: Henry VI, Part One; Henry VI, Part Two; Henry VI, Part Three; and Richard III. The plays cover the span of events from 1422 to 1485, and are referred to collectively as the first tetralogy.

A bit later (though still early in his career), Shakespeare wrote another tetralogy of plays about the English Kings: Richard II; Henry IV, Part One; Henry IV, Part Two; and Henry V. These plays were set earlier; they run from 1399 to 1415. This was the second tetralogy.

This seems pretty straightforward, but it could often cause confusion, even for graduate students. The second tetralogy takes place before the first tetralogy? How can that be? Why did he do it that way? Wait, which was the first tetralogy?

Everything changed with the release of Episode One: The Phantom Menace. Now, when I explain that Shakespeare wrote the first tetralogy before the second, but the second takes place before the first, I can enjoy their momentarily confused looks. I know I can just add “You know, like Star Wars…” and instantly see the clouds lift and light shine into the room. Since the second Star Wars series, everyone understands the idea of a prequel trilogy.

So thank you to Star Wars for making a hard thing easy. May Henry IV be with you!

Blog Log

Tuesday, May 3rd, 2011

Last week, I participated in a blogging project sponsored by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, who encouraged bloggers to post about the influence Shakespeare has had on our lives. They’ve linked up all of our contributions on one page, and it’s worth checking out. Whether you’re a fan of Shakespeare or not, it’s exciting to read people who are passionate about something writing about how they became passionate about it.

Also, be sure to check out this fantastic song parody from Bardfilm. I missed it among all the birthday excitement, but found again via a nod from the Shakespeare Geek.

In post-birthday blogging news, I’ve been asked to write a monthly post on using data for school improvement for both the company I work for and our partner organization. If you want to get a glimpse into what I actually do for a living – anagramming passages from Shakespeare doesn’t pay what it should – check out my first installment here or here.

Monkey Business

Monday, January 31st, 2011

Via the Shakespeare Geek, we learn of a website called Shakespearean Monkey, written by a middle school-aged kid:

Monkeys are smart. Though they haven’t created cars or trains or weapon, they are educated through simplicity. They flourish on what they have, and if something doesn’t work, they don’t give up, but they evolve to overcome it. Like monkeys, Shakespeare had no thesaurus, no dictionary, no laptop and no editor. But when he came to a spot where he was at loss for words, he made up his own words. Through practice, perseverance and certainly trial and error, he created works that will last forever.

I am a 13 year old kid who is trying to read and attend live performances of all 37 Shakespeare plays (plus three possible collaborations) in 2 years. This is a record of my experiences.

One could be forgiven for doubting the veracity of the “13 year old kid” claim, given the fact that the author seems to have an advanced level of writing ability, detailed knowledge of Shakespeare, sophisticated understanding of live theatre, and the wherewithal to attend top-quality theatrical productions in a variety of far-flung cities. But the Shakespeare Teacher has never been one to question authorship, and isn’t about to start now.

Seriously, though, wow. What ever this kid has, I wish I could bottle it. That being impossible, I am left to join Duane in offering this young man or woman a welcome to our online community. The Shakespeare Teacher is now your student.

A Measured Response

Sunday, January 30th, 2011

Over at Shakespeare in a Year, Ashley is making remarkable progress on her goal to work her way through the Complete Works of Shakespeare in just twelve months, and to blog about it. She recently re-read Measure for Measure, and had some harsh words for it, concluding that it “doesn’t work” and that maybe Shakespeare knew it. But this is one of my favorite plays. It works for me!

We can certainly disagree with each other, but I notice that she lists some questions about Measure for Measure that she says do not have even one reasonable answer:

Why does the duke temporarily abdicate? Why does he leave Angelo in charge, rather than the obviously more qualified Escalus? Why does he disguise himself as a friar? Why does he tell Claudio that he must die, when he knows perfectly well that he can fix the problem? Why is Angelo so suddenly and swiftly tempted by Isabella? Why is Isabella so violently angry when Claudio begs her to accept Angelo’s deal? Why is Barnardine able to simply refuse his own execution? Why does the virtuous Isabella consent to a bed trick that creates the same scenario for which her brother is imprisoned? Why does the duke tell her that Claudio is dead, why does he force Isabella to beg for Angelo’s life, and why on earth does the duke propose to Isabella?

And, perhaps most intriguing, does Isabella accept the duke’s proposal?

In my reading of the play, these questions do have answers, and it is my pleasure to share them with you. You may not like the answers, and that can be a discussion of its own, but I will provide textual evidence where it can illuminate. Please do not view this as an attack on her piece, though, and my goal is not to change anyone’s mind. I only offer another perspective to the conversation.

Why does the duke temporarily abdicate?

Duke: ’Twould be my tyranny to strike and gall them
For what I bid them do: for we bid this be done,
When evil deeds have their permissive pass
And not the punishment. Therefore, indeed, my father,
I have on Angelo impos’d the office,
Who may, in the ambush of my name, strike home,
And yet my nature never in the sight
To do it slander.

He’s not really abdicating. He’s just taking a trip and leaving Angelo in charge. His reason is because the laws have gone unenforced too long, and he feels that he no longer has the moral authority to enforce them, having been slack in his duties for so long. By leaving a deputy in charge, it will make the sudden changes in law enforcement seem less arbitrary and unjust.

Why does he leave Angelo in charge, rather than the obviously more qualified Escalus?

Duke: Lord Angelo is precise;
Stands at a guard with envy; scarce confesses
That his blood flows, or that his appetite
Is more to bread than stone: hence shall we see,
If power change purpose, what our seemers be.

He knows that Angelo has the austerity to get the job done. But if you look at the last line quoted, he seems to at least be open to the idea that power may corrupt Angelo.

Why does he disguise himself as a friar?

Duke: And to behold his sway,
I will, as ’twere a brother of your order,
Visit both prince and people:

He wants to keep an eye on his experiment.

Why does he tell Claudio that he must die, when he knows perfectly well that he can fix the problem?

Duke: Be absolute for death; either death or life
Shall thereby be the sweeter.

At this point, he doesn’t have all of the information he needs and he’s not sure what he’s going to do. Claudio is already condemned to death (and for something he actually did), so there’s no sense in raising his hopes for nothing.

Why is Angelo so suddenly and swiftly tempted by Isabella?

Angelo: What! do I love her,
That I desire to hear her speak again,
And feast upon her eyes? What is’t I dream on?
O cunning enemy, that, to catch a saint,
With saints dost bait thy hook! Most dangerous
Is that temptation that doth goad us on
To sin in loving virtue: never could the strumpet,
With all her double vigour, art and nature,
Once stir my temper; but this virtuous maid
Subdues me quite. Ever till now,
When men were fond, I smil’d and wonder’d how.

He is attracted to her virtue, but he is inexperienced with women and doesn’t know how to handle these emotions. In fact, he grows to hate himself for them, and deliberately casts himself as a villain because he sees himself that way. When he is eventually caught, his death sentence seems like a relief.

Why is Isabella so violently angry when Claudio begs her to accept Angelo’s deal?

Isabella: O you beast!
O faithless coward! O dishonest wretch!
Wilt thou be made a man out of my vice?
Is’t not a kind of incest, to take life
From thine own sister’s shame? What should I think?

She is very religious, and sees death as preferable to dishonor. Her brother, she feels, should be more concerned with protecting her honor than with saving his own life. That he allowed himself to feel otherwise shames their family before God.

Why is Barnardine able to simply refuse his own execution?

Duke: We have strict statutes and most biting laws,—
The needful bits and curbs to headstrong steeds,—
Which for this fourteen years we have let sleep;
Even like an o’ergrown lion in a cave,
That goes not out to prey. Now, as fond fathers,
Having bound up the threat’ning twigs of birch,
Only to stick it in their children’s sight
For terror, not to use, in time the rod
Becomes more mock’d than fear’d; so our decrees,
Dead to infliction, to themselves are dead,
And liberty plucks justice by the nose;
The baby beats the nurse, and quite athwart
Goes all decorum.

This is a comic scene, but it underlies a point made earlier in the play (quoted above). The law in Vienna has become a joke, and if Barnardine wants to refuse his own execution, nobody really knows what to do about it.

Why does the virtuous Isabella consent to a bed trick that creates the same scenario for which her brother is imprisoned?

Duke: Nor, gentle daughter, fear you not at all.
He is your husband on a pre-contract:
To bring you thus together, ’tis no sin,
Sith that the justice of your title to him
Doth flourish the deceit.

The Duke explains to Isabella (as he later describes to Mariana here) that Angelo and Mariana have been contracted to each other, and therefore, their union will only consummate the marriage, which is why Mariana is able to address Angelo as her husband in the last scene of the play. Juliet and Claudio had no such contract, and so it’s fornication. I know it sounds silly, but Shakespeare did make the distinction in the text.

Why does the duke tell her that Claudio is dead, why does he force Isabella to beg for Angelo’s life, and why on earth does the duke propose to Isabella?

Duke: Against all sense you do importune her:
Should she kneel down in mercy of this fact,
Her brother’s ghost his paved bed would break,
And take her hence in horror.

He seems to be testing Isabella. My take is that he wants to know how unwavering is the moral code of this woman who judges other so harshly. When she shows mercy to Angelo, even as she believes he has killed her brother, the Duke learns that she’s the real deal. He proposes on the spot.

And, perhaps most intriguing, does Isabella accept the duke’s proposal?

Duke: Dear Isabel,
I have a motion much imports your good;
Whereto if you’ll a willing ear incline,
What’s mine is yours, and what is yours is mine.

She probably does. It’s somewhat jarring for a modern audience, but hey, he’s the Duke. Why wouldn’t she accept? Being the Duchess of Vienna is so much better than being a nun in a convent, am I right?

Seriously, though, there are a few problems with the play, as I admit here, but not an unusual amount for Shakespeare. I actually like that it’s darker than his other comedies, but remember that it ends on a note of hope.

For more Measure for Measure fun, check out Sharky’s single-sentence scene reactions, or my univocalic plot summary that uses U as the only vowel!

I invite comments and criticism.