Posts Tagged ‘William Shakespeare’

Happy birthday, William Shakespeare! The bard on freedom, imitation, and coronavirus

Thursday, April 23rd, 2020
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On thinking? He had a lot to say about it.

It’s Shakespeare’s birthday, so it only seems appropriate that we baked him a little cake. There’s an even better way to celebrate, however, and that’s to bring our readers’ attention to Scott Newstok‘s How to Think Like Shakespeare, just published by Princeton University Press.

Newstok’s thing is education, and contrary to all-too-commonly held views, Shakespeare got a top-notch one. Newstok outlines the basic principles Shakespeare learned in a Chronicle of Higher Education essay:  a grounding in rhetoric (which has gotten a rather bad name in our time), imitation, inventio, traditio. (Well, honestly, they’ve all gotten a bad name.)

On rhetoric:

Antonio Gramsci described education in this way: “One has to inculcate certain habits of diligence, precision, poise (even physical poise), ability to concentrate on specific subjects, which cannot be acquired without the mechanical repetition of disciplined and methodical acts.” You take it for granted that Olympic athletes and professional musicians must practice relentlessly to perfect their craft. Why should you expect the craft of thought to require anything less disciplined? Fierce attention to clear and precise writing is the essential tool for you to foster independent judgment. That is rhetoric.

On imitatio:

As Michel de Montaigne put it: “The bees steal from this flower and that, but afterward turn their pilferings into honey, which is their own. … So the pupil will transform and fuse together the passages that he borrows from others, to make of them something entirely his own; that is to say, his own judgment. His education, his labor, and his study have no other aim but to form this.”

To add to our little mini-celebration, here’s an excerpt from Newstok’s interview with Scott Jaschik‘s over at the current Inside Higher Education:

Q: And on freedom?

A: When Caliban cries out for freedom, he falls for a drunk Stephano, who sings, “Thought is free.” Yet at this moment, Caliban’s not free — he’s just transferred his bondage to “a new master.” Real freedom would demand not only being slave to no one, but being his own master.

I’ve come to believe that a better translation of the emancipatory artes liberales would be the “crafts of freedom.” These practices cultivate a thinking citizen — the bane of every despot. Such an educational program presumes that freedom is fragile, demanding endless exertion: “there is nothing more arduous than the apprenticeship of liberty.”

I end the book with the fantastic James Baldwin essay “Why I Stopped Hating Shakespeare,” which concludes, “My relationship, then, to the language of Shakespeare revealed itself as nothing less than my relationship to myself and my past.” At first, Baldwin sought freedom from having to read Shakespeare, yet he came to relish the freedom to make Shakespeare his own. In doing so, Baldwin achieved a mutual recognition in Shakespeare that few of us ever reach – “an inner freedom which cannot be attained in any other way” than by inhabiting other minds through art.

“I feel like the crisis has given us a kind of X-ray into everyone’s souls”

Q: What do you think your book can offer today, when we are focused on the coronavirus?

A: That’s kind of an up-to-the-minute version of the utility question, isn’t it? We quickly exhausted the “What Shakespeare Did During the Plague” takes. The plaintive cry of Sonnet 65 comes to mind:

How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea,
Whose action is no stronger than a flower?

I’m starting to feel like the crisis has given us a kind of X-ray into everyone’s souls. To cite one of countless examples I’d never thought I’d see laid so bare: Do you think the postal service should be privatized, or are you grateful for its countless daily decencies? In terms of education, would you cheer if half of all universities went bankrupt, or do you cherish close learning? Should we only read contemporary prose, or might poets from the past have something to offer us?

On a more mundane level: my chapters are mercifully short, well suited to “this distracted globe”! And the book’s packed with apt quotations. At the least, they might provide a momentary stay against confusion; at best, an inspiration to seek out “the treasures that prevail,” a handbook for what matters once we emerge from the wreckage.

Oh yes, the cake… we just pulled it out of the oven!

What was Harold Bloom working on at life’s end? This.

Sunday, October 20th, 2019
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His dreams were still in Yiddish.

What was Harold Bloom writing at 89? According to his friend, the writer, translator, and publisher Lucas Zwirner, Bloom had started a new book  called Immortality, Resurrection, Redemption: A Study in Speculation,  exploring the afterlife in the Judeo-Christian, Greco-Roman, and Islamic traditions. Zwirner discusses it in The Paris Review here.

“Being with Harold always felt historic, momentous,” he writes. “The world around him was thick with thoughts and feelings, dense. The people we encounter in writing pierce us, their inner lives give us more life. For those of us who were lucky enough to study with him, Harold let that life out. It doesn’t matter that he didn’t finish his book.”

America’s legendary lit critic never finished the book, of course. He died last Monday. In his last email to his friend on September 18, Bloom discussed the book, and took on Silicon Valley, too:

In the early autumn of 2019, the denial of death by Silicon Valley technocrats has been an organized phenomenon for about fifteen years. There are varied cults that keep burgeoning of which the most notorious is Terasem, founded on a science fiction novel I could not finish. Satellite dishes have been set up to record the mindsets of the new faithful and beam them out into the great beyond, in the pious hope that amiable aliens will receive them and descend with fresh panaceas to sooth the fear of dying.

Does the world grow better or worse, or does it just get older? There is nothing new under the sun. Cultivating deep inwardness depends upon the reading of the world’s masterpieces of literary works and religious scriptures. Not that Silicon Valley would be at all interested, but I would prescribe that all of them learn to read Shakespeare as he needs to be read. Self and soul would then return and take the place of fashionable evasions of the contingencies that have always shaped human lives.

Read the rest here. (And hat tip to Frank Wilson.)

A childhood chum.

And over at the Times of Israel, Bloom discusses how he still dreams in his first language, Yiddish. He was the child of Jewish Orthodox immigrants from Ukraine and Belarus: “As a very small child, three, four years old, I was sent to Sholem Aleichem schools… they were all over the Bronx. So, pretty good early education that was strictly in Yiddish… But to this day my English is very curious because I learned it only through the eye and not through the ear. I didn’t, in fact, hear English spoken until I was about 5 and a half. I was a preternaturally early reader and at 5 or 6, I was already reading Shakespeare and trying to read Milton and so on. But English is, of course, a very peculiar language, as Bernard Shaw complains, the orthography and the pronunciation have nothing in common. So to this day, I speak my own curious, inflected English. It doesn’t sound like anybody else’s. So as far as I’m concerned, I still dream in Yiddish.”

Read it here.

A Christmas lost-and-found story – courtesy a book-loving Victorian girl named Minnie Percy

Friday, December 21st, 2018
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The story of a gift that’s lost and then found seems to be a Christmas theme, and so we present this little Victorian Christmas story, from Bay Area high school English teacher Chris Bunje Lowenstein. Careful Book Haven readers will remember that Chris is a Dante-lover (we wrote about her Dante pack of cards at an antiquarian book fair a few years back here).

A Dante-lover, too.

From Chris:

At this year’s seasonal Great Dickens Christmas Fair in San Francisco, I came across the quintessential “olde book shoppe,” which specializes in – of course – the works of Charles Dickens. The wooden bookcases in the shop bowed under the weight of a few thousand other beautiful books with decorative bindings, most of which were published from about 1880 to 1914. It takes the owner three days to create this replica of a 19th-century bookshop.

I spent a full hour in the shop, and, having decided to take some bits of history home with me, I purchased seven 19th-century books with beautiful decorative bindings. As I made my purchase, my eye happened to fall on a small group of papers, propped on a shelf and bound by thread and a fraying blue ribbon. The paper that formed the “cover” of this little booklet had a highly decorated, hand-colored drawing of Shakespeare. Underneath the drawing, in Gothic lettering, was the name “Minnie Percy”. I have no idea who Minnie Percy was or why she’d created this booklet, but I fell in love with the colorful cover and the fact that every word inside was handwritten. Here in this manuscript was a bit of Victorian history kept alive. I imagined the pleasant hours I would spend researching the piece, admiring it, and sharing it with my high school students and book collector friends. Impulsively, I purchased the little manuscript, but it didn’t fit in the bag with the seven other books I’d bought. To protect it, the owner of the shop placed the manuscript in between two pieces of cardboard, and, parcels and purse in hand, I wandered around the fair for two more hours before returning home only to notice …

I had lost it! Somehow, the manuscript had slid out of its protective cardboard and fallen to the ground unnoticed. I was ashamed at my own carelessness. I had allowed myself to be so caught up in the re-creation of history that is the Dickens Fair that I dropped and lost an actual piece of history, a piece of history whose caretaker I had implicitly agreed to become once I purchased it.

That evening, I emailed the fair’s producers, describing the manuscript and the vendor from whom I purchased it and asking them to please contact me on the chance that someone found it and turned it in. I heard nothing. The next day, on a break after one of my English classes, I checked my email. Nothing. And again after school. Nothing. After several days, I began to despair. Perhaps the manuscript had been swept up like the other trash at the end of the day and discarded. Or – best case scenario – perhaps someone saw the manuscript on the ground, recognized its beauty, and took it home. While I would have preferred to keep the manuscript for myself, I was at least consoled by this version of events, because in this version the manuscript would not be lost to history; it would live on in the care of someone else. By the end of the week, I had abandoned all hope. I would never know what became of that beautiful, one-of-a-kind, little gem.

Late Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, my phone rang. The caller identified himself as the owner of the bookshop at the Great Dickens Christmas Fair. “Someone turned in to the ticket office the manuscript you bought from me last weekend. The office had received the email with your contact information, so they brought the manuscript back to me and asked me to get in touch with you.”

I was so overjoyed that I swore I could hear Ebenezer Scrooge suggesting that I be boiled in my own pudding and buried with a stake of holly through my heart. A few hours later, I gave my name to the man working the will-call ticket booth, explaining why I was there. “Ah, madam” he said in his best Dickensian British accent, “we’ve been waiting for you. I have a parcel with your name on it. Just a moment.”

I thanked him and clutched the manuscript tightly, silently giving thanks to the kind soul – unknown to me – who also recognized that this manuscript was not a piece of trash but a treasure and who rescued it and, realizing that it belonged to someone else, turned it in. More than just a manuscript was returned to me on Saturday; my faith in humanity was also restored. God bless us, every one.

When I got home and finally had the chance to examine the manuscript booklet more closely, I saw that Minnie Percy had created a commonplace book she had titled “Gems from Shakespeare”. Inside the book were famous quotes from many of Shakespeare’s plays. The titles of the plays were written in large Gothic letters, and the bright blue ribbon that bound the book was also used for a bookmark. Written in Minnie Percy’s beautiful Spencerian script on the page the ribbon marks is the following quote from As You Like It:

And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in everything.
I would not change it.

King Lear: a ruler who thinks power is more important than love

Friday, November 23rd, 2018
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Hopkins as Lear, Florence Pugh as Cordelia

A few weeks ago we wrote about Anthony Hopkins‘s mesmerizing performance in a BBC production that squanders a lot of opportunities. We’ve been thinking about the play since.

So has the Wall Street Journal‘s Terry Teachout, who seems to be an expert on King Lear, at least from the number of recent productions he references in his article in Commentary magazine (thanks for the heads-up Frank Wilson). Glenda Jackson‘s performance of the role is coming to Broadway next April – according to him, that will be the third Broadway production of William Shakespeare‘s masterpiece in the last six decades. “Why were American versions of King Lear so uncommon for so long? Because it is to theater what Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge is to music, an all-encompassing super-drama fraught with complexities that pose challenges of understanding to the playgoer.” Regional performances have more than filled the gap, however, making it one of the most popular of Shakespeare’s plays.

Here’s where the BBC production with Hopkins comes in: “Too often, however, the quest for ‘relatability’ results in modern-dress stagings whose every element seems to have been determined in advance by an arbitrary concept superimposed on the text by the director rather than arising organically from it. Some, such as the Eyre/Hopkins TV Lear, work reasonably well on their own restrictive terms, but others have been unconvincing, on occasion even preposterous. The worst Lear I have ever reviewed, directed by Robert Falls at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre in 2006, turned the play into a tale of Eastern European gangsters whose opening scene was set in a men’s room with a working urinal.” I would argue the same for the Eyre/Hopkins chop suey production, which mangles the text.

He argues “Shakespeare’s plays work best when performed without scene breaks in open-stage productions that employ a bare minimum of props and scenery” – a contention that was made by Prof. Peter Styron at the University of Michigan, during my own undergraduate days.

Is King Lear petty? Not in many of the performances: “He is a ruler of towering stature who makes the fatal mistake of supposing that power is more important than love, then discovers the world as it really is, cold and hostile to the vanity of human wishes. ‘Is man no more than this?’ Lear cries at the piteous spectacle of the half-naked Edgar trembling in the storm, and in an instant he is invaded and conquered by self-doubt. To ‘humanize’ such a titan by playing him naturalistically is to diminish the pathos of his brutal humiliation.”

He concludes:

King Lear: a mesmerizing Hopkins in a disappearing script

Saturday, October 27th, 2018
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All old men know what King Lear is about. Every old man has a King Lear within him. At least, that’s what Goethe thought. In veteran actor Anthony Hopkins‘s case, we suspected it all along.

Shakespeare‘s King Lear has come to town on BBC/Amazon Prime, and those of us on the social media have been salivating over trailers and clips for weeks now. It’s not Hopkins’ first crack at the king – he performed it thirty years ago, but he has aged into the role that all ambitious actors wait decades to play. He gives a mesmerizing performance, flickering from flint to fire and back in split-seconds as daughters Emma Thompson and Emily Watson belittle, betray, and torment him.

Hopkins and Pugh in a BBC “King Lear”

“Men must endure their going hence, even as their coming hither: Ripeness is all,” says Lear. Hopkins is ripe for this role at 80 – all thrash and shout and tremor and wail. But capable of vulnerability, too, and capable of the coolly delivered drop-dead line: watch the tail-end of the trailer above, the calm fury of his “Better thou hadst not been born than not to have pleased me better.” He’s never been  better.

Aristotle said tragedy leaves us with horror and pity. The horror was in abundance in Richard Eyre‘s all-star production, most gruesomely for the close-ups in Gloucester’s eye-gouging scene. But tenderness was in short supply. This is a remorseless production that does not pause for pity. The dramatic line moves steadily downward; the viewer never has the tragic sense things could have been different, that there’s an almost-world waiting in a parallel universe just beyond reach. But you have your heart broken, and my flinty little heart was intact by the time the final credits rolled.

In large measure, the problem is not the sword, but the scissors. Too much has been cut from this play to make it emotionally intelligible, to give it a rhythm and pacing and keep from reducing it to mere plot. Lear usually clocks in at more than three hours; this production has been pared to a skinny 115 minutes. There’s plenty of blood and punches, but little time for Lear’s humanity.

For example, this poignant speech from captured and humiliated Lear to his faithful and doomed daughter Cordelia (Florence Pugh) was jettisoned for tanks and helicopters, machine guns and army trucks in a dystopian England:

No, no, no, no! Come, let’s away to prison:
We two alone will sing like birds i’ the cage:
When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down,
And ask of thee forgiveness: so we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news; and we’ll talk with them too,
Who loses and who wins; who’s in, who’s out;
And take upon’s the mystery of things,
As if we were God’s spies: and we’ll wear out,
In a wall’d prison, packs and sects of great ones,
That ebb and flow by the moon.

Soon she is murdered. Shakespeare’s Lear cries, “Howl, howl, howl, howl!” Typically, he carries and cradles her as he croons his lament. It is one of the most heart-rending scenes in the entire tragic repertoire. Instead Hopkin’s Lear, in a prison uniform, pulls her covered corpse across stage in a makeshift cart, barking “Ho, ho, ho, ho!” Like a hepped-up hobo Santa.

The Millennials I watched it with laughed. And it wasn’t the only time in film they did. Naturally, I blamed them. But I left disappointed, and not with them. I grieved for the wasted resources. The brilliant cast deserved some room to let the lines breathe in a production that could have, should have, haunted us forever. And you don’t need rat-a-tat-tat machine gun fire for that.

This could have been the King Lear for our times. On the other hand, perhaps it is. Alas.

“This is the hardest class you will ever take,” the kids were told. And the course filled up within minutes.

Tuesday, April 10th, 2018
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Auden knew what he was doing.

Kids are lazy little buggers who opt for easy courses, right?

Wrong.

Some time ago I wrote about W.H. Auden‘s syllabus during his time at the University of Michigan in the 1940s, a copy of which had been sitting in my files for decades. I can’t remember how I found it in the archives of the Rackham Graduate School, but occasionally I would run across it again, take it out, and stare at it, as at a marvel.

The reading list for his course, “Fate and the Individual in European Literature,” included: The Divine Comedy in full, four works by Shakespeare, Pascal’s Pensées, Horace’s odes, Volpone, Racine, Kierkegaard’s Fear and TremblingMoby-DickThe Brothers KaramazovFaust, Baudelaire and Rimbaud, Kafka, Rilke, T.S. Eliot. Also, nine operas. (Auden loved opera – and assigned three of Wagner‘s Teutonic masterpieces.) That’s more than 6,000 pages total. For a single course.

At the University of Oklahoma, three brave men – Kyle Harper, a classicist and the university’s provost; the historian Wilfred McClay; and David Anderson, a professor of English – decided to team-teach a year-long course, modifying Auden’s syllabus a little – to include, for example, Milton.

“This is the hardest class you will ever take.”

The result, according to Mark Bauerlein writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

When enrollment opened last semester, the unexpected happened. The course filled up within minutes. Harper had already warned his students, “This is the hardest class you will ever take.” The syllabus was posted online in advance, so that students knew exactly what they were getting into. The course meets a general-education requirement at Oklahoma, but so do many other courses with half the workload. To accommodate the unexpected demand, the class was expanded from 22 to 30 students, the maximum number that the assigned classroom could hold.

I sat in on a class in October. McClay lectured on Inferno. The atmosphere was genial but focused. You can tell after five minutes whether a class has an esprit de corps — no sullen faces, no eyes drifting to windows and cellphones, even the bad jokes get a laugh. McClay slid from Augustine to Bonaventura to Jesus, Jonah, Exodus, and the prodigal son before taking up Paolo and Francesca, and then the suicides, sodomites, murderers, and frauds in Dante’s torture zones.

The historian was game.

After class, about half of the students and I headed over to the dining room at Dunham College, one of Oklahoma’s graceful new residential colleges, for lunch. There, without the professors present, I asked the key question: Why did they sign up for Western-civ boot camp?

One fellow grumbled that he had to do three times as much work as he did in his other classes. The rest nodded. But you could hear in his words the self-respect that comes from doing more work than the norm, from climbing the highest hill while your peers dog it. Another student said that the page-count of the syllabus had flattered her, that it showed the professors respected her enough to demand that she take on a heavy load of historic literature.

The English prof was game, too.

“This is what I came to college for,” another said. One more chimed in, “This class is changing my life.”

They acknowledged, too, the distinctiveness of the works they read, one student calling them a “foundation” for things they study elsewhere. They admired the professors, to be sure, but the real draw was the material. When I asked what they would change about the course, they went straight to the books: add The Iliad and some of the Bible.

Read the whole thing here.

A postscript of 4/14 from John Murphy of the University of Virginia: “On my way out the door of higher ed and toward opportunities, both teaching and otherwise, elsewhere, one of my thoughts – in line with the program described here – is one way to revive the humanities might be to make the whole enterprise an honors curriculum or honors college within larger institutions. That would allow for a recuperation of the rigorous and seriousness that has long been lost within college and university humanities courses and it would also raise the value of a humanities degree as a credential. The implicit message would be “real college for real students” and it would be mark of distinction to have taken the more difficult and selective course of study, even if you went on to purse a “practical” career after that. It would be a sign to “practical” employers that a graduate had really hit the books during college and not taken the easy way out. Young people will work very, very, very hard at things that ultimately don’t matter as much as curricular education – i.e. athletics. So maybe foregrounding the aspect of difficulty might tap some kind of competitive spirit. ‘Auden College: No Pain, No Gain.'”