Shakespeare Sunday

It’s Shakespeare’s birthday, probably, and also his death-day.  Every day is a good day to quote Shakespeare, though.  Here is Sonnet 73:

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou seest the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire
Consumed with that which it was nourish’d by.
This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

An update on my garage (and my mental health)

Here I pondered what to do with myself after giving up on the American experiment.  Some updates:

  • My garage is much cleaner, thanks for asking.  Although not exactly, you know, clean.
  • I haven’t read A Theory of Justice.  But it’s on my Amazon wish list (hint hint)!  Also, it was mentioned in a good book I read about philosophers of the Enlightenment called The Dream of Enlightenment.
  • Following my brother’s suggestion, I have listened to Schoenberg’s orchestration of the Brahms piano quartet.  It was great.  Thanks, Stan!  Thanks, Amazon Prime!  Thanks, Brahms and Schoenberg!
  • I’ve speeded up my fiction writing.  I’m up to about 40,000 words of my first draft.  Theoretically, that should be about halfway through.  Unfortunately, I seem to have about a dozen point of view characters, and things keep getting more complicated.  Occupational hazard.
  • I haven’t read more Shakespeare.  On the other hand, I have listened to Ian McEwan’s Nutshell.  I’m generally conflicted about McEwan, but boy is this novel great.  It’s a modern retelling of the Hamlet story; in this case, Hamlet is the narrator, and he happens a fetus overhearing a plot between his mother (Trudy) and uncle (Claude) to murder his father.  It’s ridiculously well written, even if McEwan’s characterization of a third-trimester fetus isn’t always, um, plausible.

Is my mood any better?  Actually, no, despite the state of my garage.  Here is Charles Blow in the Times, summing things up pretty well:

We are not in an ordinary postelection period of national unity and rapprochement. We are facing the potential abrogation of fundamental American ideals. We stand at the precipice, staring into an abyss that grows darker by the day.

Renowned be thy grave

As today’s Google Doodle will let you know, this is the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death.  The Times today has a clever faux-obituary.

Here is a funeral song he wrote a few years before his death.

Fear no more the heat o’ th’ sun
Nor the furious winter’s rages;
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
Home art gone and ta’en thy wages.
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.

Fear no more the frown o’ th’ great;
Thou art past the tyrant’s stroke.
Care no more to clothe and eat;
To thee the reed is as the oak.
The sceptre, learning, physic, must
All follow this and come to dust.

Fear no more the lightning flash,
Nor th’ all-dreaded thunder-stone;
Fear no slander, censure rash;
Thou hast finished joy and moan.
All lovers young, all lovers must
Consign to thee and come to dust.

No exorciser harm thee,
Nor no witchcraft charm thee.
Ghost unlaid forbear thee;
Nothing ill come near thee.
Quiet consummation have,
And renowned be thy grave.

As is often the case in Shakespeare’s late romances, the beautiful young woman to whom this song is sung is not in fact dead.  (In real life she wasn’t even a woman, but that’s neither here nor there.)  Shakespeare, of course, isn’t really dead either.  Let’s raise a tankard to him today!

Who stole Shakespeare’s skull?

According to this New York Times article, it was a guy named Frank Chambers.  First, researchers used radar imaging of Shakespeare’s grave site at a church in Stratford-upon-Avon.  The imaging indicated that the skull was probably missing.  This led them to an account of a doctor named Chambers robbing the grave in 1794:

“We’ve done lots of research literally trying to pick holes in this story,” Mr. Colls said, adding that the group had looked into the names of Chambers’s gravedigger accomplices, the inns they visited before and after the heist, and the depth to which they were said to have excavated; all the details checked out. “If the grave-robbing account is a made-up story,” he said, “then it’s unbelievably accurate in all its details.”

What I like about this piece is its consideration of whether the researchers’ imaging technique “moved” Shakespeare’s bones, which would mean that the inscription above the grave — “Curst be he that moves my bones” — would apply to them:

Whether the archaeologists beaming radar into Shakespeare’s grave were able to escape the curse printed above the grave depends on how much you believe in quantum physics. Radar waves, like every other form of electromagnetic radiation including visible light, carry energy and momentum, a lesson every schoolkid learns when asking where a comet’s tail comes from: particles of cosmic fluff pushed into a stream by the pressure of sunlight. Indeed, scientists have suggested that spacecraft with giant foil sails propelled by sunlight or powerful lasers might be the cheapest form of interplanetary or even interstellar travel.

One of the ineluctable rules of quantum mechanics (and perhaps journalism) is that you can’t observe something without disturbing it and influencing it in some way. For Shakespeare’s remains to be detected, electrons in the atoms of his bones would have to absorb energy and momentum from the radar waves and then kick it back out. So to see Shakespeare is to give him a quantum tickle. Safely embedded in the ground, the bones might not have moved much or at all, but they knew someone was watching.

Good stuff.

Here is Shakespeare, back when his skull was attached to his body:

“The Year of Lear”

Every time I read a Shakespeare play or read a good book about him, I wonder why I waste my time doing anything else.  Here’s one: The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606 is James Shapiro’s followup to his A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599.  The idea is to connect the plays Shakespeare wrote in a given year with the events taking place that year.  England in 1606 saw the aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot, concerns about King James’s push to unite England and Scotland, witchcraft trials, repression of Catholics, and the return of the plague.  Among other things.  During this welter of events, and presumably reacting to them, Shakespeare found the time to write King Lear, Macbeth, and Anthony and Cleopatra. Not a bad year.

Of course, Shapiro’s book is full of suppositions, because we know absolutely nothing about Shakespeare’s inner life.  But it’s fun to guess!  Shapiro has a lot to say about what I think is one of the most fascinating issues in Shakespeare.  Why did he rework the plot of an older play called King Leir and change its happy ending to the unbearably tragic ending of his version?  Was it the times?  Was it something in his personal life?  Was he trying different meds?

And what caused him (or someone else) to change his original ending (published in the Quarto of 1608) to what we find in the First Folio of 1623?  It’s still tragic, but there is now a thin shaft of light amid the all-encompassing darkness.  (This still wasn’t enough for playgoers, who preferred a version adapted by Nehum Tate that restored the happy ending of King Leir; this version held the stage until 1838.)

Anyway, Shakespeare is forever.  And I’m pleased to see that Glenda Jackson is returning to the stage in a gender-blind production of King Lear at the Old Vic. That’s big news, since Jackson has been away from acting since 1992.

I saw her in a production of Macbeth with Christopher Plummer in 1988.  It was not a success, as the Times review makes clear; maybe that contributed to her decision to go into politics.  The production was still in ferment when I saw it in Boston.  In the performance I attended, I remember her practically masturbating during the “unsex me here” speech.  Not sure that made it to Broadway.

Oddly, a brief clip from the production survived into the YouTube age.  Here it is, although be warned: you’ll have to look at the insufferable Gene Shalit interviewing Jackson:

Eulogies and the wit of the staircase

I was attending a memorial service at Mount Auburn Cemetery the other day, and I was asked to say a few words about my wonderful cousin Bob, who died recently from the effects of Alzheimer’s.  I said my piece and took my seat.

And then I remembered a beautiful anecdote that summed up Bob perfectly.  Three years ago he had sent me a lovely email remembering my father (who died many years ago) on my father’s birthday.  Fighting the wreckage of his mind, Bob still managed to send me a thoughtful email (complete with a Dickens reference).  When I recalled this I wanted to jump up from my seat and say, “Wait a minute!  I’m not done yet!”  But I had missed my chance.

This is a somewhat morbid example of l’esprit de l’escalier — the wit of the staircase — where you think of the perfect rejoinder to an argument at a dinner party only as you are on the way out.

This happened to me before, after I spoke at my mother’s funeral.  In the last months of her life something happened to her brain, and she had a perpetual low-grade random fear.  It was heartbreaking.  A couple of weeks later I was driving to work and listening to a tape of John Gielgud declaiming Shakespeare.  And suddenly I heard him recite the famous song from Cymbeline, which starts like this:

Fear no more the heat o’ the sun,
Nor the furious winter’s rages;
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
Home art gone, and ta’en thy wages:
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.


It’s not exactly Christian theology, but it spoke to me.  I almost crashed my car on Route 128 when I heard it.  That’s what I should have said to my mother as I said goodbye to her.  Fear no more.

Oh well.

Because I’m in the mood, here is Brahms’ German Requiem.  This piece will always remind me of sitting with Cousin Bob and his wife Lesley in a darkened room in a Vermont hospice, listening to this great music as Bob’s father’s life ebbed away.  Here is the English text of part one:

Blessed are they that mourn,
for they shall be comforted.
They who sow in tears,
shall reap in joy.
Go forth and cry,
bearing precious seed,
and come with joy
bearing their sheaves

Stephen King on being prolific

Stephen King has always struck me as being a humane and generous writer.  In today’s New York Times he has a piece entitled “Can a Novelist Be Too Productive?”  He points out:

No one in his or her right mind would argue that quantity guarantees quality, but to suggest that quantity never produces quality strikes me as snobbish, inane and demonstrably untrue.

And he points out that some writers (himself included) are just meant to be prolific–they can’t help themselves:

As a young man, my head was like a crowded movie theater where someone has just yelled “Fire!” and everyone scrambles for the exits at once. I had a thousand ideas but only 10 fingers and one typewriter. There were days — I’m not kidding about this, or exaggerating — when I thought all the clamoring voices in my mind would drive me insane. Back then, in my 20s and early 30s, I thought often of the John Keats poem that begins, “When I have fears that I may cease to be / Before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain …”

But he never quite answers the question in his title (the title, of course, may not be his).  This comes to mind as I read Elin Hilderbrand’s novel The Rumor.  She is no dummy:  She went to Johns Hopkins and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.  She has created her own wildly popular genre–the Nantucket beach novel.  But clearly her publisher wants her to write a book, maybe two books, a year.  Could her novels be better if she took more time writing them, if she aimed higher? Is she being too productive?  Beats me, but I think maybe so.  The Rumor seems OK, but it is very slight.

On a related topic, I have so little time to read that I tend to avoid prolific novelists, because I fear that they are sacrificing quality for quantity.  But, of course, I could be wrong.  Here is Shakespeare’s output for 1599, as chronicled in the wonderful book A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599:: Henry V, Julius Caesar, As You Like It, and Hamlet.  I don’t think any of us would  have wanted Shakespeare to slow down in 1599.

Jon Vickers

The great Canadian tenor Jon Vickers died today.  My most memorable evening in the theater was seeing him, Renata Scotto, and Cornell MacNeil at the Met in the Zeffirelli production of Otello.  (Seems to me that Otello is that rarest of creatures that is actually better than its Shakespearean source.)

Here is Vickers in the final scene of Verdi’s opera.  Art just doesn’t get any better than this.

It’s Shakespeare’s birthday, so let’s randomly replace words with “duck”

Put aside your well-thumbed copy of Timon of Athens and go to this site, obviously created by folks with too much time on their hands.

Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your duck.

Note that you can choose the replacement word.

Slurpy, slurpy!  Parting is such sorrow
That I shall say slurpy till it be morrow.

Out, out brief slurpy!

OK, time to go back to Timon of Athens.

The real winter of our discontent

My previous post put me in mind to search YouTube for this: Laurence Olivier delivering the opening soliloquy from Shakespeare’s Richard III:

Good job, YouTube!

Because this is my blog and not yours, here’s the actual soliloquy, which ain’t quite the same:

Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this son of York;
And all the clouds that lowered upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.
Now are our brows bound with victorious wreaths,
Our bruisèd arms hung up for monuments,
Our stern alarums changed to merry meetings,
Our dreadful marches to delightful measures.
Grim-visaged war hath smoothed his wrinkled front,
And now, instead of mounting barbèd steeds
To fright the souls of fearful adversaries,
He capers nimbly in a lady’s chamber
To the lascivious pleasing of a lute.
But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks
Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass;
I, that am rudely stamped, and want love’s majesty
To strut before a wanton ambling nymph;
I, that am curtailed of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling Nature,
Deformed, unfinished, sent before my time
Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them–
Why I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to see my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity.
And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determinèd to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.
Plots have I laid, inductions dangerous,
By drunk prophecies, libels, and dreams,
To set my brother Clarence and the king
In deadly hate the one against the other;
And if King Edward be as true and just
As I am subtle, false, and treacherous,
This day should Clarence closely be mewed up
About a prophecy which says that G
Of Edward’s heirs the murderer shall be.
Dive, thoughts, down to my soul — here Clarence comes!

Wikipedia tells me something I didn’t know: the U.S. release of the film occurred simultaneously in theaters and on TV in 1956:

The release was unique in that the film had its US premiere on the same day both on television and in cinemas, the first instance of this ever being done. It was not shown during prime time, but rather in the afternoon, so prime time ratings for that day were not affected by any pre-emptions for a special program. It is quite likely that it was the first three-hour telecast of a film or a Shakespeare play ever to be shown.

It says that between 25 and 40 million people saw the film on TV.  Which makes me think that more people saw this film than any other production of any Shakespeare play ever.