A brilliant collection of Shakespearean quotations for tonight’s debates! “Hell is empty; all the devils are here.” Posted by the Folger Shakespeare Library, from Timothy McSweeney’s blog, a post by Emily Uecker…
A brilliant collection of Shakespearean quotations for tonight’s debates! “Hell is empty; all the devils are here.” Posted by the Folger Shakespeare Library, from Timothy McSweeney’s blog, a post by Emily Uecker…
This is a pretty good summary of the play, isn’t it?
Unfortunately, my student didn’t realize that: that their love led inevitably to their deaths (given their circumstances and personalities and impulsive youth).
Did she mean they loved each other a lot, as so many of us use this phrase: “Oh, I love you to DEATH, John!” (“To death” is used in this same way, to indicate a great amount or intensity, in such phrases as “he talked that subject to death!” and “she bores me to death.” Thus we can see that “to death” doesn’t necessarily carry a positive connotation–is, more often, negative…like death itself, I suppose…)
Judging from the rest of the essay she wrote, I have to think this was not her intention. No, it was an error much more likely: she had in mind the marriage vow to love the other “till death do us part.” Evidently what she had heard, or understood, when she attended weddings was “to death do us part.” So she was telling her reader that Romeo and Juliet kept that vow they probably murmured in Friar Lawrence’s monkish cell. They loved each other every minute until they died. They loved each other all the way to the moment of death. Her essay wasn’t even ultimately about the play; it was about love in general. Many people fall in love and get married and then they get divorced, unlike R&J, who were faithful to the end.
I will prefer to think that the sentence itself was a flash of insight, a conflation of Shakespeare’s entire play, and the fault was in the essay that didn’t live up to the moment of brilliance. A woefully brief visitation from Melpomene, the Muse of Tragedy.
And next time I go to see the play in question, as soon as the Chorus mentions the star-crossed lovers, I will think to myself, “Yes, they loved each other—they loved each other to death.” End of story!
As night closes down on the next-to-last day of what has been a difficult year, this statement by one of my students seems peculiarly apt.
I use “peculiarly” here in its lovely sense of “distinctively, particularly, uniquely,” not in its (now) more common sense of “oddly” or “weirdly.” But maybe that sense is just as good.
I knew what my student meant, of course: writing the essay was hard because the books it was about were hard (old, boring, and complex). But perhaps because I keep assuring my students that everything is interesting to the person willing to be interested, he is reluctant to take responsibility for either the boredom or the misery. Instead, he blames the novels.
There they come, those old things, waddling into his room to cause his writing to be miserable. They settle themselves in his chair and on the edge of his desk and proceed to bore him. They may have complicated personalities, but the complications are not interesting either; they are merely complicated. And oh MY! but they are old.
Now, he’s not laying the blame for writing’s misery exclusively on them; evidently the writing was already miserable before they arrived to make it worse. We can’t be sure that the essay itself was miserable, but we do know the writing was. And we can be sure that once those old, boring, and complex novels showed up the writing was even more miserable.
Did he have anything to do with any of this? Evidently not. The sentence doesn’t even make clear that he was doing the writing—it seems simply to exist, independent of any agent. And the miserable-ness was visited upon the writing by those books. Perhaps my student was merely an observer, sympathetic or, more likely, bored himself.
I can offer a reason for the writing’s misery: my tired, bored, and lazy-minded student. He characterizes the readings in a way that has, alas, become familiar to me. I have been told, repeatedly, in essays that “Shakespeare is boring.” I have also been told that “Shakespeare is stupid.” The person, mind you, not necessarily the plays or poems. Readers all over the world during the course of some four centuries have been interested enough to keep the stuff in print, and even to support repeated productions of those boring and complex plays; but some of my students have not been deceived: BORING. STUPID. It is a way to avoid blaming oneself for failure to understand the material or care about the characters and their dilemmas: The fault, dear Brutus, is not in myself, but in the texts, that I am failing the course. After reading Angela Carter’s wonderful short story “Erl King,” which is not only a compelling coming-of-age story that uses the erl-king archetype brilliantly but also a gorgeous demonstration of the flexibility and joyfulness of the English vocabulary, several of my students complained that “She had no right to use all those hard words.” No right. That story certainly would qualify as “complex” and therefore “boring.”
The biggest reason why writing the essay was miserable, though, was that the student did not enter the sentences, or the thoughts, or the spirit at all. The source of the misery was impersonal toil at a meaningless chore. Even a young, lively, simple short story would cause misery for such writing.
When I’m working on a piece of writing and it begins to go well, I can feel that pleasure as a physical experience as well as an intellectual one. My hands reach eagerly for the keys, my fingers begin to fly, there is actually a thrill in my forearms. My mind leaps forward; I lean in. I forget time.
I grieve that this will never happen for my student. Writing the essay will always be miserable, because he doesn’t want to get involved. Blame it on those old, boring, and complex novels.
Ah well. We can always hope the New Year will bring something we’ve never seen before, something wonderful. That’s my wish…
She is referring to Shakespeare’s Sonnets.
How hard this poem is! she thinks to herself. I’d better read it a second time!
This explains why students come to class so woefully unprepared when the assigned reading is poetry. Once through, only a few lines, and it’s time to shut the book and party! Of course when I try to get them to talk about their experience of a poem, they tell me, for just about every one, “It’s about love and how sad love is.” Not a bad guess: many many poems are “about” this. Surprisingly, all these poets feel they must say that same thing over and over again, right? If I ask about a specific image in a poem, I get a generic answer: Q: What is the nightingale doing in this poem? A: It is a symbol of love. (Surprise: NOT ALWAYS! and NOT IN THIS POEM!) Now, I wouldn’t want to suggest that they have never read a poem that isn’t about love: The Iliad, The Odyssey, The Aeneid, Beowulf, even The Lord of the Rings all boil down to this essential theme: “Never give up.” Literature’s great pageant.
Once, after assigning Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “The Snow Storm,” I asked everyone to open their books, reread the poem, and draw the picture created by the first lines—which are, if you haven’t already clicked the link to read the whole poem:
No hawk hangs over in this air:
The urgent snow is everywhere.
So I did not give them a task requiring a lot of artistic talent: the “artist” need only cover the paper with dots and dashes representing snow. The poem goes on to describe people bent over, scurrying under the sideways-driving snow like mice (except that there is no hawk to frighten them). Students might have drawn the people too. The speaker also says that the sharp, icy wind would be too much for the tender flesh under any hawk’s wing…. I’ll bet you have already guessed that of 19 drawings, 18 depicted, with greater or less skill, a hawk sitting on some snow. They swore that they had read the poem carefully. You tell me. Here’s what I’m pretty sure of: they didn’t re-read it.
I used to think that by the time students got to college they understood that poetry, a highly compressed and usually highly allusive genre, required close and participatory reading from the reader. I discovered e.e. cummings all by myself in high school, and I used to pore over his lines, so playful on the page some of them, working to get inside his mind, inside the poem. I didn’t just read the words “as freedom is a breakfast food” or “anyone lived in a pretty how town” or “in Just-,” say “huh!” and feel I grasped the phrase, let alone the whole poem. Who taught me that? Well, I know my English teachers expected it, but I think I just knew it: poetry demands work on the part of the reader.
For Shakespeare, I like to assign “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” along with “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun.” Class begins with the obligatory review of the sonnet form, demonstration of iambic pentameter (Your last name is O’Neill! You’re an IAMB! If I say your name five times that will be IAMBIC PENTAMETER!), illustration of Petrarchan and Shakespearean rhyme schemes…and then we “talk about” the sonnets themselves. Here’s what Shakespeare is “kind of saying” in Sonnet 18: The girl he loves is just like a summer’s day, just as beautiful and warm, and she will never fade away, no matter how old she gets. Here’s what he’s “kind of saying” in Sonnet 130: She is ugly! (How rude! He must suddenly hate her now!)
And then I read the actual sonnets aloud, line by line, and walk them toward what the speaker is actually saying. They are always quite surprised. This may be why a student long ago defined “poetry” as “when the writer never says what he means.” Anyway, after this careful reading-cum-discussion, some students always come up after class to say they now LOVE “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun.” My joy is brief, though: the next time the class discusses poems that were assigned reading, back we go to the “kind of saying,” the pervasive bird=love pattern, and all the other signs of the old once-over.
Is this because they’ve had too many “find the symbol” and “guess the meaning” exercises in the lower grades? (And it’s not just poetry—this is what they want to do with short stories and plays also.) I know my students have trouble developing a thesis, and I attribute that to hanging around exclusively with people who share their opinions, so they don’t even know a judgment requires a rational defense. For literature, they rush to a quick general “moral of the story” and feel they have said all that needs to be said.
When I think of all the literary lines, images, characters, moments that have enriched my life and given me insights into emotions and ideas I have not previously been able to put into words or even perceive—when I think of how richly textured my imaginative life has been as a consequence of all my reading—I am filled with grief and rage for my students. There is no way that they’re going to learn the reader’s habit of mind and its attendant joys in one semester. I can show them my joy, offer them my insights and knowledge; but until they manage to work their way through to their own, they won’t have the experience themselves. Why has this not already happened for them? Why have they been permitted to equate the reading of literature with moving their eyes over words?
So I laugh at the notion that understanding Shakespeare might take a second and maybe even a third reading, and also hope that this basic discovery might somehow prompt appropriate action and, down the line, bring joy.
Could happen, right?
First of all, Happy Birthday, William Shakespeare. You changed my life!
One of Shakespeare’s most far-reaching contributions to the English-speaking world was the vigorous stretching of the language. At least as far as written English goes, we can attribute to him numerous coinages and repurposings (although we cannot blame him for the verb “to repurpose”!) that enlarged the lexicon and made it more supple. Working with nuanced ideas by way of fresh images within the constraints of iambic pentameter is bound to stimulate verbal creativity. We can’t know how many of the words he introduced or used in new ways were already current in the spoken language, but the level of sophistication in his usage suggests that he was the prime mover at least most of the time.
So, to celebrate, I offer a verbal repurposing by one of my students.
It lacks true Shakespearean felicity, at least on the surface. Maybe beneath the surface, though?
“Remorse” is, as almost all of us know, a noun. It is not a verb. It comes from Latin via Middle French and then Middle English, and at base it means “the act of biting again.” Webster’s says when we use it we mean “a gnawing distress arising from a sense of guilt for past wrongs.”
It’s certainly true that Lear eventually does feel remorse: for valuing the wrong daughters at their word; for abnegating his humanity before abdicating his throne; for being stupid. His “remorse” seems particularly apt when we recall that he himself expressed his disappointment in his daughters as a kind of biting: “sharper than a serpent’s tooth,” he styled it, “to have a thankless child.” Two thankless children = two bites. Regan bites; Goneril bites again. King Lear has remorse.
For my student, though, Lear’s guilt is not a thing but a process: King Lear remorses. But in that structure, considering the word’s origins, wouldn’t we have to interpret the statement to mean that LEAR bites again? He doesn’t experience a thing, a re-biting; he bites.
This is not how my student used it; she wrote that he remorses over how badly things have turned out.
But if we do a little speculating, we might be able to make things come out right, after all:
Perhaps like Othello, Lear bites his own “nether lip.” Othello does it in anger (and possibly in frustration and anguish), and in fact the same phrase is used by other, later, writers to denote the same act and motive. (I have always liked this gesture, so suggestive of self-devouring—and Prof. Steve Cohen of Central Connecticut State University demonstrates with great clarity and persuasion the presence of a substantial pattern of images of devouring in Othello, in an article the draft of which he was kind enough to share with me a couple of months ago.) If Lear follows suit as he fumes over the consequences of his folly, we might very well say that he “remorses”!
Unorthodox use of language, but on Shakespeare’s birthday, who am I to complain about that?
Another lost Shakespeare play?
This is an interesting title. The first thing it reveals is that the student never actually set eyes on the play. Back in my own student days, I confess, I didn’t read every word of every assignment, and on several occasions I went into class with a book that looked read only because I had carefully thumbed the pages, dog-eared a few, and broken the spine before rushing to class. But—and I don’t say this with any particular pride, it’s just a fact—I always knew the title of the assigned piece. The student writing on Othello here has more in common with his schoolmate who wrote a critical paper on The Twelfth Knight than he has with the sometimes-under-prepared me.
So, chalk it up to trying to write a paper based on things heard (or mis-heard) in class.
Now, as to that whore. As you may or may not remember, depending on what you majored in and how long ago it was, the full title of the play we refer to as Othello is The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice.
“Moor” may be an unfamiliar term to modern students; those who read a little Brontë in high school may think of the landscape feature even if, like Emily Dickinson, they never actually saw one of those moors. Unless they’ve studied medieval European history they may not have a clear idea of the Moors, those dark-skinned Arabs who conquered parts of Europe and terrified everybody with their fierce battle skills, horsemanship, non-latinate language, ornately wailing music, and exotic architecture (Spain, anyone?). Othello, the Moor of Venice, is referred to as one of them, not a landscape feature. But, because when we hear an unfamiliar word we are likely to “hear” instead a word in our own vocabulary that sounds like it, I assume that the word “moor” in any sense was new to this student…
And so he heard “whore.” Now, not all of us pronounce “whore” to sound like, or rhyme with, “Moor,” but some of us do: “Whoo-uh,” in Brooklynese, for example, and “whoor” possibly among those too fastidious or virtuous to speak the word “whore.” So “Whore” gets into the title of the play.
Music groups today aren’t so fond of putting “and the” in their names, but in My Day it was a commonplace: Little Anthony and the Imperials, Paul Revere and the Raiders, Bill Haley and the Comets, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, Diana Ross and the Supremes, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Booker T. and the MGs, Gerry and the Pacemakers, Sly and the Family Stone, Country Joe and the Fish (I know my point was made long before I ended this list, but I thought you and I deserved a little trip down Memory Lane…). In grad school we made up fantasy ones: Diggory Venn and the Reddle Men stands out as one of the best, with Juno and the Paycocks and Leda and the Swans coming up close behind. If my student had any tendency toward comfort with this pattern, he might have added that “and,” making the subject of Shakespeare’s play a rock ‘n’ roll group (or at least duo).
The Whore of Venice might also have gotten in there by way of the Whore of Babylon, if my student had been hearing any anti-Catholic propaganda or studying the Book of Revelation.
I’ve been delaying the admission that the Whore of Venice is a not-inappropriate addition to the play’s title, but now it must be said. Desdemona, a young Lady of Venice, is a pure and faithful and loving wife to Othello for the brief days that she is his wife, and Othello holds fast to his belief in her until Iago manages a little dumb-show that persuades him otherwise; but Iago has been insinuating throughout the play that Desdemona is not, cannot be, faithful to “the Moor,” and when Othello kills her he has been persuaded that he is removing a whore from the world lest she “betray more men.” The play is not a tragedy for Desdemona in the sense that we use the term “tragedy” in literature, but she certainly suffers and she certainly dies. I like that my student sticks her into the title along with Othello, although he doesn’t do so very respectfully.
But I don’t like that he has the temerity to write about a play he hasn’t read, and his error in the title makes pretty plain that he hasn’t. Poor lad: if only he had been content to refer to the play as Othello, as most people do, I might never have known.
I’ll give you a minute on this one. It took me several minutes to stop laughing when I first read it.…
This was in an essay on (you have probably guessed) Henry V. My student is referring to the scene on the eve of the Battle of Agincourt, a moment when, according to another student, the king visited his troops, going “from tent to tent calling them brothers and fiends.” Now, “fiends” is a problematic word, all right. I was in a staged reading in December, a radio script about an attempt by Satan to do away with Christmas: the actor playing the devil kept reading the word “fiends,” which was in the script, as “friends,” which most decidedly was NOT in the script and which added a note of pathos to the author’s intention of gleeful malevolence. My student did the opposite transposition, thereby vilifying the English in the eyes of their own king. But just as my actor friend’s (not fiend’s) word choice was an accident of the eye, I know my student’s was an accident of the fingers on the keyboard; no need to discuss motivations and intentions, or even suggest a subconscious assessment of subtext.
But THIS sentence is something else. Of course I knew what she meant, as anyone who knows about the battle or Shakespeare’s play does: the English forces at Agincourt were woefully outnumbered, and the odious boastful condescending overconfidence of the French noblemen/officers in their scene is completely understandable, if odious nevertheless. Henry’s visit to his soldiers’ tents was absolutely necessary if he wanted them to find the heart to go into combat, since everything about the situation spelled certain defeat. The English army have been fighting, and besieging, and slogging over the muddy autumnal French countryside for some time; they are undernourished, footsore, heart-weary, and, in their own minds, doomed. Henry can’t give them rest or food, but he does give them heart—armed with which, plus the longbow, they stun the French and delight themselves and their king with a decisive victory the next day.
For Shakespeare, and for the English ever since, and for me whenever I sing the Agincourt Carol or teach the play, the event is a source of pride and joy.
But my student’s sentence turns all of that into helpless laughter. If only she had said “The English army,” then “1/5 the size of the French” could have gotten by, since then it would be describing a collective entity that could be compared with another collective entity, the French (“army” implied). Her phrasing doesn’t permit that, though: we’re talking Englishmen, and so “the French” has to mean Frenchmen, and we’re therefore comparing stature of individuals.
Now, if literature and population descriptors can be trusted, the Welsh do tend to be short (Dylan Thomas described himself as “five foot, six and a half—tall for a Welshman”); but surely the men fighting with Henry (Irish, Scots, English, Welsh) could not possibly be 1/5 the size of the French: either the French were about 5′ 10″ and the English were 14″ tall, or the English were about 5′ 10″ and the French were 29′ tall. If you haven’t already been picturing a battle between two such forces, do take another minute and do it now. Only Jonathan Swift could have made it work.
Obviously my student did NOT take that minute. Part of me takes the red pen and suggests better wording for her; another part, though, is still laughing at the picture of those TEENSY WEENSY English clambering over mud mountains, shooting their teensy weensy arrows. Perhaps like Achilles, the French were vulnerable in the heel, the only part of their body those arrows could reach…
TODAY’S SPECIAL SURPRISE: As I have inched my way into this world of blogs, I have met some wonderful writers and fascinating people. One of them writes a blog as “Year-struck.” In the course of leaving comments back and forth with each other, she invited me to write on her blog as a guest. Since many of her own posts share moments of her childhood—very good reading, you should take a look—I indulged in some reminiscence of my own. I invite you to go over to “Year-struck,” either by connecting through the listing on my blogroll (look to your right) or by following this link, and read my post (and some of hers too!).
I don’t know if “livelihood” was in this student’s mind and the word just looked funny to him when he wrote it, or if “livelihood” wasn’t in the student’s lexicon at all, and when other people mentioned the word he actually did picture a lively ‘hood.
Well, it’s certainly true that London in the late 1500s was a lively ‘hood. Intercontinental trade and exploration, cosmopolitan crowds in the taverns, glorious Elizabethan music (ballads AND madrigals, jig tunes AND allemandes, tabors and lutes and celestes and hurdy gurdys), Armadas to defeat in the Thames, thieves and plotters and would-be assassins in the back streets, traitors in the Tower, priests in cupboards, iambic pentameter in the air, the theater in full vigorous flower, the English language becoming its glorious self. And there, stalking and scowling through the streets in their plain outfits and text-only religion, were the Puritans, enemies of art and artifice (and, if you can believe Ben Jonson in his slightly-later Bartholomew Fair—and I do—bilking the gullible in the name of God). Man, that can bring a lively ‘hood down.
The Puritan campaign against the theater, where some actors dressed in the garb of the other sex and all of them capered on stage and spouted LIES in the name of “art,” was implacable, waged through pamphlets and pulpits and probably boycotts (don’t know, the word didn’t exist yet to get into print on the subject). When they arrested and warred and beheaded their way to power in 1640, they did close the theaters down. (My music professor Back in The Day said that’s how opera became popular in England, because the Puritans didn’t ban musical concerts and operas were, more or less, sung plays, so theater-lovers kept their drama somehow during the ensuing 20 years, ha ha!) Shakespeare had already retired from the stage by then, and had died in 1616, so his own livelihood wasn’t destroyed by them; but surely he was spinning in his grave, bemoaning the violence done to the craft he had loved and transformed.
Well, the less said about the Puritans the better. Cling to the picture painted by my student, of Willy the Shake in his high-tops, jiving his way to the Mermaid, high-fiving all his boys, rapping with the balladeers, jamming with his crew, generally getting down in the ‘hood, the lively lively ‘hood, of Elizabethan London.
He manages “playwrights,” which most of my students spell “playwrites,” with aplomb; perhaps he’s so sure of himself that he doesn’t then read the sentence he wrote (and wrought).
Does he in fact think that “playwright” is the long form of “play”? There is that remote possibility. The less real reading our students do (fiction, non-technical and non-instructional nonfiction, and preferably from the printed page in a calm atmosphere), the less sensitivity they seem to have to language use. They happily embrace trendy neologisms and misapplications; they equate passive voice with professionalism; they jumble formal, informal, and slang terms and patterns indiscriminately; they prefer the long general word over the short specific word every time. Maybe this student thought “plays” looked too much like recreation and added “wrights” to give it heft.
I speculate on this because if he meant to write about playwrights, the rest of the sentence just doesn’t work on any level, beginning with the word “contain.”
The most probable explanation is that he unintentionally deleted the phrase “write scenes that” immediately after “playwrights.” The sentence wouldn’t necessarily be true, especially nowadays with our one- and two-actor plays (and small production budgets), but at least it would make sense.
I prefer to think that he’s expressing a deeper insight: that playwrights have, within them and available, multiple personae. After all, Shakespeare is so elusive to us as a person partly because so many of his characters, from leads down to bit parts, have so much presence, so much person-hood if you will, that he himself seems to be all of them. He contained hundreds of participants. Many writers of plays and fiction have commented that once established early in a work, the characters they create seem to take over the plot and development, through the force of their early dialogue developing motives and from those motives deciding on actions that the writer may not have anticipated or intended: a life of their own. Speaking from my own experience: I have written only one full-length play, and it a parody/satire; but even characters so derivative began to move and breathe and feel, to the extent that I sometimes felt they were writing their own dialogue—no small feat in a play written entirely in iambic pentameter!
I’m sure that I corrected the hell out of that sentence on my poor student’s paper, but I think that now, for awhile at least, I’ll let myself believe what I’ve imagined here and give him credit not for an honest mistake (that possible phrase-deletion) but for a genuine insight ineptly phrased.