Quotulatiousness

October 11, 2017

Reading Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

Filed under: Books, Europe, History — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

In the latest Libertarian Enterprise, Richard Blake introduces one of the greatest English historians and explains why his work is still well worth reading:

Edward Gibbon (1737-94) was born into an old and moderately wealthy family that had its origins in Kent. Sickly as a child, he was educated at home, and sent while still a boy to Oxford. There, an illegal conversion to Roman Catholicism ruined his prospects of a career in the professions or the City. His father sent him off to Lausanne to be reconverted to the Protestant Faith. He came back an atheist and with the beginnings of what would become a stock of immense erudition. He served part of the Seven Years War in the Hampshire Militia. He sat in the House of Commons through much of the American War. He made no speeches, and invariably supported the Government. He moved for a while in polite society – though his increasing obesity, and the rupture that caused his scrotum to swell to the size of a football, made him an object of mild ridicule. Eventually, he withdrew again to Switzerland, where obesity and his hydrocele were joined by heavy drinking. Scared by the French Revolution, he came back to England in 1794, where he died of blood-poisoning after an operation to drain his scrotum.

When not eating and drinking, and putting on fine clothes, and talking about himself, he found time to become the greatest historian of his age, the greatest historian who ever wrote in English, one of the greatest of all English writers, and perhaps the only modern historian to rank with Herodotus and Thucydides and Tacitus. The first volume of his History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire astonished everyone who knew him. The whole was received as an undisputed classic. The work has never been out of print during the past quarter-millennium. It remains, despite the increase in the number of our sources and our better understanding of them, the best – indeed, the essential – introduction to the history of the Roman Empire between about the death of Marcus Aurelius and the death of Justinian.

I’ve read a few abridged versions of Gibbon’s great work, and I intend to start on the unexpurgated version once I’ve finished the New Cambridge Modern History (I have all in hand except Volume XII, the Companion Volume). This is why Blake considers Gibbon to be such an important and still-relevant writer:

1. Greatness as a Writer and a Liberal

I cannot understand the belief, generally shared these past two centuries, that the golden age of English literature lay in the century before the Civil War. I accept the Prayer Book and the English Bible as works of genius that will be appreciated so long as our language survives. I admire the Essays of Francis Bacon and one or two lyrics. But I do not at all regard Shakespeare as a great writer. His plays are ill-organised, his style barbarous and tiresome. I fail to understand how pieces like A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Romeo and Juliet, with their long, ranting monologues, can be thought equal to the greatest products of the Athenian theatre. I grant that Julius Caesar is a fine play – but only because Shakespeare stayed close to his ancient sources for the plot, and wrote in an uncharacteristically plain style. Perhaps I am undeveloped in some critical faculty; and I know that people whose judgements I trust have thought better of him. But I cannot see Shakespeare as a great writer or his age as the greatest in our literature. […]

2. His Scholarship

As said, this was not my first meeting with Gibbon. I was twelve when I found him in the abridgement by D.M. Low. As an undergraduate, I made use of him in the J.B. Bury edition up till the reign of Heraclius and the Arab conquests. In my middle twenties, I went through him again in a desultory manner, skipping chapters that did not interest me. But it was only as I approached thirty that I read him in the full and proper order, from the military resources of the Antonines to the revival of Rome under the Renaissance Popes. It is only by reading him in the whole, and by paying equal attention to text and footnotes, that he can be appreciated as a supreme historian. […]

3. His Fairness as an Historian

Even where he can be criticised for letting his prejudices cloud his judgement, Gibbon remains ultimately fair. He dislikes Christianity, and is convinced that it contributed to the decline of the Empire. His fifteenth and sixteenth chapters are one long sneer at the rise and progress of the Christian Faith. They excited a long and bitter controversy. There was talk for a while of a prosecution for blasphemy. But this was only talk. A man of Gibbon’s place in the social order was not to be taken into court like some hack writer with no connections.

August 4, 2017

QotD: Shakespeare’s sonnets

Filed under: Books, Britain, History, Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

The Sonnets were published late in Shakespeare’s career (1609) — by a clever and unscrupulous man. His name was Thomas Thorpe. He ran what was for the times a unique publishing business, playing games with “copyright” that were often unconscionable but, usually, this side of the law. He owned neither a printing press, nor a bookstall — two things that defined contemporary booksellers — subcontracting everything in his slippery way. Indeed, I would go beyond other observers, and describe him as a blackguard; and I think Will Shakespeare would agree with me. Though Shakespeare would add, “A witty and diverting blackguard.”

He collected these sonnets, quite certainly by Shakespeare, but written at much different times and for quite various occasions, from whatever well-oiled sources. Thorpe had a fine poetic ear, and knew what he was doing. He arranged the collection he’d amassed in the sequence we have inherited — 154 sonnets that seem to read consecutively, with “A Lover’s Complaint” tacked on as their envoi — then sold them as if this had been the author’s intention.

We have sonnets not later than 1591, interspersed with others 1607 or later. In one case (Sonnet 145), we have what I think is a love poem Shakespeare wrote about age eighteen, to a girl he was wooing: one Anne Hathaway. (She was twenty-seven.) It is crawling with puns, for instance on her name, and stylistically naïve, but has been placed within the “Dark Lady” sonnets (127 to 152) in a mildly plausible way. It hardly belongs there.

Indeed, once one sees this it becomes apparent, surveying the whole course, that there is rather more than one “Dark Lady” in the Sonnets, and that like most red-blooded men, our Will noticed quite a number of interesting women over his years. But Thorpe has folded them all into one for dramatic effect.

David Warren, “Dark gentleman of the Sonnets”, Essays in Idleness, 2015-05-11.

July 30, 2017

QotD: Orwell on climate change since Shakespeare’s day

Filed under: Britain, Environment, History, Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

To the lovers of useless knowledge (and I know there are a lot of them, from the number of letters I always get when I raise any question of this kind) I present a curious little problem arising out of the recent Pelican, Shakespeare’s England. A writer named Fynes Morrison, touring England in 1607, describes melons as growing freely. Andrew Marvell, in a very well-known poem written about fifty years later, also refers to melons. Both references make it appear that the melons grew in the open, and indeed they must have done so if they grew at all. The hot-bed was a recent invention in 1600, and glass-houses, if they existed, must have been a very great rarity. I imagine it would be quite impossible to grow a melon in the open in England nowadays. They are hard enough to grow under glass, whence their price. Fynes Morrison also speaks of grapes growing in large enough quantities to make wine. Is it possible that our climate has changed radically in the last three hundred years? Or was the so-called melon actually a pumpkin?

George Orwell, “As I Please”, Tribune, 1944-11-03.

April 7, 2017

The art of Shakespeare … well, actually the art of Munchkin Shakespeare

Filed under: Gaming, Humour — Tags: — Nicholas @ 05:00

John Kovalic reflects on the now-complete artwork for Munchkin Shakespeare:

Munchkin Shakespeare is DONE!

At least my part.

Final tally: about 250 cards, bookmarks, covers, etc.

It was, without question, the largest single Munchkin project I’ve ever tackled at one sitting.

Well, several sittings, really. Over about a two-month period.

The final sitting was the best, though. In London at the time, I wandered around Southwark – Shake-dawg’s stomping grounds – and chose the bar at Shakespeare’s Globe to finish the last few drawings.

[…]

Munchkin Shakespeare was a hugely fun project – but it was also hugely huge, thanks to you monsters and all the stretch-goals you hit.

Would more time have been helpful? Yes. But then, that’s always the case. Point being, Munchkin Shakespeare is going to look fantastic. Most of that is due to the Steve Jackson Games Art Department, which always manages to make my silly little scribblings look great. Those folks are amazing.

Also? The cards are hilarious. I mean, truly madcap, green-eyed, bloodstained tremendous. Thanks to Steve Jackson, Andrew Hackard, and many contributors who threw in crazy ideas during a crowdsourcing braintrust info-dump that launched this too, too silly project.

Here are some first-looks at a few of the cards (Insert usual “Art Not Final” etc. things I’m supposed to say here)!

April 5, 2017

QotD: Sir John Falstaff

Filed under: Britain, History, Media, Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

… in the back of my mind always ran the great anti-perfectionist utterance of Sir John Falstaff, Shakespeare’s indelible comic character, in Part 1 of Henry IV: “Banish plump Jack, and banish all the world.” A world of perfect sense and good behavior would be well-nigh intolerable: we need Falstaffs, even if we are not Falstaffian ourselves.

If we were to describe a man as deceitful, drunken, cowardly, dishonest, boastful, unscrupulous, gluttonous, vainglorious, lazy, avaricious, and selfish, we should hardly leave room in him for good qualities. No one would take it as a compliment to be described in this way, and we would avoid a person described in such a fashion. Falstaff was all those things, but probably no character in all literature is better loved. Only Don Quixote can compete; and our love of Falstaff is not despite his roguery but because of it. Certainly we would rather spend an evening in his company than with the totally upright Lord Chief Justice of Part 2 of Henry IV. A world of such rectitude, in which everyone had the justice’s probity, would be better, no doubt: but it would not be much fun.

But there is everything in the fat old knight to repel us also: he is almost certainly dirty, and, as a doctor, I would not have looked forward to performing a physical examination on him. He is so fat that the slightest physical effort causes him to exude greasy sweat. As Prince Hal says, he “lards the lean earth as he walks along.” To enjoy Falstaff, you have to be in a tavern; but the world, for most people, cannot be a giant tavern, and outside that setting, Falstaff is distinctly less amusing.

[…]

When Falstaff toward the end of Part 2 of Henry IV learns from Pistol that the old king is dead and that Prince Hal has succeeded him, he immediately sees his opportunity for the unmerited advancement not only of himself but of his cronies. He knows the worthlessness of the rural magistrate, Robert Shallow, and of the ensign, Pistol, only too well; yet he says: “Master Robert Shallow, choose what office thou wilt in the land, ’tis thine. Pistol, I will double charge thee with dignities.” He gives not a moment’s thought—he is temperamentally incapable of doing so—to the consequences of treating public office as a means only of living perpetually at other people’s expense.

Again, when given the task of raising foot soldiers, Falstaff has no compunction in selling exemptions from service and appropriating to himself the money for arms and equipment, leaving his soldiers ill prepared for the battle and with, as he says, “not a shirt and a half” between them: “I have led my ragamuffins where they are peppered [with shot]. There’s not three of my hundred and fifty left alive.” Falstaff sheds not even a crocodile tear for his lost men; their fate simply does not interest him, once they have served his turn and he has made his profit from having recruited them. Even Doctor Johnson is too indulgent when he says: “It must be observed that he is stained with no enormous or sanguinary crimes, so that his licentiousness is not so offensive but that it may be borne for his mirth.” True, he is not sanguinary as a sadist is sanguinary; but depriving 150 men of the means to fight before a battle that ends in their deaths is no mere peccadillo, either.

Why, then, do we forgive and even still love him? If he had been thin, we might have been much less accommodating of his undoubted vices (Hazlitt, in his essay on Falstaff, emphasized the importance of his fatness). At a time when to be a “stuffed cloak-bag of guts,” as Prince Hal calls him, was unusual and most men were, of necessity, thin, Falstaff’s immense size was a metonym for jollity and good cheer — as fatness still is with Santa Claus. It would not have made sense for Julius Caesar, after noting that “Yon Cassius has a lean and hungry look,” to say that such men are well contented. And had Falstaff been slender, he would not have been what Johnson called him, “the prince of perpetual gaiety.”

Falstaff appeals to us because he holds up a distorting mirror to our weaknesses and makes us laugh at them. Falstaff’s dream is that of half of humanity: of luxurious ease and continual pleasure, untroubled by the necessity to work or to do those things that he would rather not do (Falstaff will do anything for money except work for it). There is luxury in time as well as in material possessions, and no figure lives in greater temporal luxury than Falstaff, to whom the concept of punctuality or a timetable would be anathema. Former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi was — or rather, appeared to be — a kind of Falstaff figure, admired by many, though eventually detested by even more, who seemed to lead an effortless life of merrymaking and who was unafraid of the world’s censure. He was therefore able to say heartless but witty things that the rest of us, cowed by the moral disapproval of others, laughed at under our breaths but would not dare to say ourselves.

Theodore Dalrymple, “Why We Love Falstaff: There is some of Shakespeare’s incorrigible rogue in all of us”, City Journal, 2015-08-16.

March 2, 2017

Munchkin Shakespeare … I can’t believe this isn’t already a thing

Filed under: Gaming, Humour — Tags: — Nicholas @ 05:00

I don’t play games as often as I used to, but the Steve Jackson Games Munchkin series has always been a great source of party entertainment. I just discovered a Kickstarter campaign to produce a new one, called Munchkin Shakespeare, which will end just over a week from now. I know I have several quite serious Shakespeare fans among my readership, so I’d be remiss not to pimp this game to them:

They’ve more than met the initial goal, so the game will be produced, but the number and variety of stretch goals is yet to be fully completed.

February 8, 2017

British History’s Biggest Fibs with Lucy Worsley Episode 1 War of the Roses [HD]

Filed under: Britain, History — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Published on 27 Jan 2017

Lucy debunks the foundation myth of one of our favourite royal dynasties, the Tudors. According to the history books, after 30 years of bloody battles between the white-rosed Yorkists and the red-rosed Lancastrians, Henry Tudor rid us of civil war and the evil king Richard III. But Lucy reveals how the Tudors invented the story of the ‘Wars of the Roses’ after they came to power to justify their rule. She shows how Henry and his historians fabricated the scale of the conflict, forged Richard’s monstrous persona and even conjured up the image of competing roses. When our greatest storyteller William Shakespeare got in on the act and added his own spin, Tudor fiction was cemented as historical fact. Taking the story right up to date, with the discovery of Richard III’s bones in a Leicester car park, Lucy discovers how 15th-century fibs remain as compelling as they were over 500 years ago. As one colleague tells Lucy: ‘Never believe an historian!

May 21, 2016

QotD: Teaching Shakespeare

Filed under: Britain, Education, History, Media, Quotations — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 01:00

I have the grimmest memories of being taught Shakespeare. It happened in a high school in Ontario in the ’sixties. I’m sure that my teacher meant well. It was on the curriculum, and what could she do? It started with Romeo and Juliet, in connexion with which we were taken to see a movie. This was also called “Romeo and Juliet,” directed by Franco Zeffirelli, and starring Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey. Tell the truth, I fell in love with the actress — for hours; days maybe. But then I’ve always been a fool for women. We were taught not the play, but the movie; then as we moved on to The Merchant of Venice (I think it was, I wasn’t paying much attention) we were taught not the play, but “what it all means.” I can only bear that when the teacher has some notion of what it all might mean, herself.

My interest focused curiously enough not on Romeo, nor Juliet, nor any of the powers at play in Verona, but on Friar Laurence, and his charitable if somewhat naive efforts to prevent bad things from happening. Shakespeare here and elsewhere had the nerve to present Catholic monks and nuns in a good light, after they’d been scoured from the English landscape. Pay attention, and know anything at all about his times, and one will see that he has consistently reversed the “stereotypes” promoted in Elizabethan England. There, as here today, the traditional practitioners of religion were satirized for corruption and hypocrisy. In Shakespeare, instead, the monks and nuns scramble about trying to fix one mess or another that the worldlings have created for themselves, and somehow reconcile them with Our Lord. We see plainly who the real Christians are, and who are not. And if we want real hypocrisy and corruption — we find for instance Angelo, in Measure for Measure, with his parade of fake asceticism, and lines to echo those of contemporary “reformers.”

I mention that play as extremely topical, in light of recent events at Rome. Also, because it was once taught to me as an exposé of religious life, when it is — shriekingly — the opposite.

But by that point in my life (age fourteen) I was already a Shakespeare votary, and no high school teacher could kill my enthusiasm for him, much as she might (unwittingly) kill it in everyone else, by making a drudgery of the subject. The basic clew was missing among the pedagogues, as it still is: that this subject teaches itself. It needs only a stage, only to be pronounced, for the “music” in verse and prose to begin explaining all the words. The less prepared a student is to resist Shakespeare, the faster he will succumb to the charm. This has been tested: even before audiences in India with little knowledge of English in any dialect; or in Germany a long time ago, where English strolling players took Shakespeare when London theatres had been closed. The story of Shakespeare’s conquests, in English and a hundred other languages, is one the English themselves have hardly understood, and exhibits to my mind the truth of Kipling’s: “What do they know of England, who only England know?”

David Warren, “Teaching Shakespeare”, Essays in Idleness, 2015-01-19.

May 3, 2016

QotD: Shakespeare

Filed under: Britain, History, Media, Quotations — Tags: — Nicholas @ 01:00

[Shakespeare] … could experiment so wildly with the language in his later plays. The earliest ones are strictly respectful of English syntax, and obedient with English grammar and vocabulary. The later ones break all the rules. Shakespeare knew he could hold an audience spellbound, whether they could follow his verbiage or not. He earned a freedom no subsequent poet in English till the twentieth century would dare to imitate; whenupon, those who tried, failed.

Yet he is a poet, a disciplined poet, and a thinker, too; and was a man of very broad if chaotic reading, as we are still discovering. His Latin was superb, and what he comprehended from the Roman poets, Ovid especially, was of a higher quality than dribbling academics can imagine. His thefts from Plutarch are always astute, but also from Livy. What he learnt from the ancient comedians, however, was nothing on what he could teach them.

To call him “the Bard” is to subscribe to the common, ignorant view that he was a “noble savage,” an untutored force of nature. The French, in their formality, are mostly responsible for this error of the Enlightenment; it was among the many things Voltaire got wrong, as the insidious depth of the master dramatist undermined his poppet classicism.

Shakespeare meditated deeply on English history, and on history at large. He went beyond presenting it in narrative form. Like a documentary filmmaker, he takes what he needs from the historical record, discards the rest, and changes anything that does not fit his programme. This is also his strategy in the Comedies and the Tragedies, never paying for a plot when he can steal one. For the world is full of plots, and one is like another. The world is full of mud and rock, but the master mason can shape and lay them. The master sculptor permits the stone to speak.

He did not have a theory of history, or a theory of anything else — a mediaeval mind does not think in “theories” — but a profound sense of how the world works, and of the contending spirits animating it. He summons spirits, and strange to say they come.

David Warren, “Four Centuries Later”, Essays in Idleness, 2016-04-23.

November 2, 2015

A different view of Macbeth

Filed under: Britain, History, Media — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Anthony King looks at Macbeth as a PTSD sufferer:

Although the descriptions are graphic, Shakespeare’s play itself includes few on-stage battle scenes. Only at the very end does Macbeth actually fight on stage, a last stand in which he kills the young Siward (his last victim) and is in turn killed by MacDuff. For the rest of the play, all of Macbeth’s violence is set off stage, described but never seen. The audience imagines his violence — they do not witness it.

Justin Kurzel’s striking new adaptation of Macbeth, released on October 2, 2015 to critical acclaim and starring Marion Cotillard and Michael Fassbender, represents a cinematographic inversion of the original. In his film, battle predominates. The film begins with an extended combat sequence. Macbeth and his army are gathered on a bleak moor as they prepare for battle against Macdonaldwald’s army, unseen in the dense fog. The camera pans across the black-striped war-painted faces until, initiated by Macbeth, the host issues a war cry and plunges toward their enemies, who appear spectrally in the distance through the murk. In ultra-slow motion, the two armies clash and brutal fighting follows. Most notably, one of Macbeth’s boy soldiers, on whom the camera dwells tellingly before the battle, has his throat cut during the fighting and bleeds out darkly on screen. Eventually, Macbeth charges Macdonaldwald and slashes him to the ground. The scene is followed by a long sequence in which the dead are gathered and prepared for cremation, including the boy soldier, whose image haunts the rest of the film.

Macbeth’s apparently fearless heroism and remorseless violence is on display throughout these sequences. Yet the sequences highlight an aspect of Macbeth’s character normally absent from adaptations of the play and presumably from the original play, but highly relevant to a 21st-century audience. Macbeth is a combat veteran and, despite his courage, he is plainly severely traumatized by his war experiences. Kurzel and Fassbender construct him as a victim of PTSD, and he displays the classic symptoms of this perturbing condition.

October 12, 2015

Pronouncing Shakespeare

Filed under: Britain, History — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

I don’t know about you, but the first embedded video here at Open Culture sounds much more “Irish” than modern “English” to me:

As we highlighted a few days ago, recent findings by South African scientists suggest that William Shakespeare may have smoked pot, possibly composing some of his celebrated plays while under the influence. Their research is sure to spark controversy among Shakespeare scholars and historians alike, but it’s certainly a more interesting controversy than the tired debate about whether Shakespeare wrote his plays at all. Perhaps even more interesting than Shakespeare’s drug of choice for lovers of his language are debates about what Shakespeare’s plays might have sounded like to his original audiences. In other words, high or not, what might Shakespeare, his actors, and his audience have sounded like when they spoke the language we call English.

Of course they called the language English as well, but we might not recognize some words as such when hearing Shakespeare’s accent aloud. On the other hand, it might be surprising just how much the Bard’s original pronunciation sounds like so many other kinds of English we know today. In a post two years ago, we quoted Shakespearean actor, director, and writer Ben Crystal on Shakespeare’s original pronunciation, which, he says, “has flecks of nearly every regional U.K. English accent, and indeed American and in fact Australian, too.” Hearing Shakespeare’s English spoken aloud, Crystal remarks, is hearing a sound that “reminds people of the accent of their home.” You can test this theory, and hear for yourself the sound of Shakespeare’s English with the video and audio highlighted here, showcasing Crystal’s performance of the plays in original pronunciation (OP).

January 27, 2015

Shakespeare’s tender treatment of Catholicism

Filed under: Britain, History, Media, Religion — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

David Warren explains how he deduced that William Shakespeare was probably a Catholic:

Long before I became a Catholic, I realized that Shakespeare was one: as Catholic as so many of the nobles, artists, musicians and composers at the Court of Bad Queen Bess. I did not come to this conclusion because some secret Recusant document had fallen into my hands; or because I subscribed to any silly acrostic an over-ingenious scholar had descried, woven into a patch of otherwise harmless verses. My view came rather from reading the plays. The Histories especially, to start: which also helped form my reactionary politics, contributing powerfully to my contempt for mobs, and the demons who lead them. But with improvements of age, I now see an unmistakably Catholic “worldview” written into every scene that is indisputably from Shakespeare’s hand. (This recent piece by another lifelong Shakespeare addict — here — will spare me a paragraph or twenty.)

That our Bard came from Warwickshire, to where he returned after tiring of his big-city career, tells us plenty to start. The county, as much of Lancashire, Yorkshire, the West Country, and some other parts of England, remained all but impenetrable to Protestant agents and hitmen, well into Shakespeare’s time. Warwick’s better houses were tunnelled through with priest holes; and through Eamon Duffy and other “revisionist” historians we are beginning to recover knowledge of much that was papered over by the old Protestant and Statist propaganda. The story of Shakespeare’s own “lost years” (especially 1585–92) has been plausibly reconstructed; documentary evidence has been coming to light that was not expected before. Yet even in the eighteenth century, the editor Edmond Malone had his hands on nearly irrefutable evidence of the underground commitments of Shakespeare’s father, John; and we always knew the Hathaways were papists. Efforts to challenge such forthright evidence, or to deny its significance, are as old as the same hills.

But again, “documents” mean little to me, unless they can decisively clinch a point, as they now seem to be doing. Even so, people will continue to believe what they want to believe. In Wiki and like sources one will often find the most telling research dismissed, without examination, with a remark such as, “Against the trend of current scholarship.”

That “trend” consists of “scholars” who are not acquainted with the Bible (to which Shakespeare alludes on every page); have no knowledge of the religious controversies of the age, or what was at stake in them; show only a superficial comprehension of the Shakespearian “texts” they pretend to expound; assume the playwright is an agnostic because they are; and suffer from other debilities incumbent upon being all-round drooling malicious idiots.

Perhaps I could have put that more charitably. But I think it describes “the trend of current scholarship” well enough.

Now here is where the case becomes complicated. As something of a courtier himself, in later years under royal patronage, Shakespeare would have fit right into a Court environment in which candles and crucifixes were diligently maintained, the clergy were cap’d, coped, and surpliced, the cult of the saints was still alive, and outwardly even though Elizabeth was Queen, little had changed from the reign of Queen Mary.

The politics were immensely complicated; we might get into them some day. The point to take here is that the persecution of Catholics was happening not inside, but outside that Court. Inside, practising Catholics were relatively safe, so long as they did not make spectacles of themselves; and those not wishing to be hanged drawn and quartered, generally did not. It was outside that Queen Elizabeth walked her political tightrope, above murderously contending populist factions. She found herself appeasing a Calvinist constituency for which she had no sympathy, yet which had become the main threat to her rule, displacing previous Catholic conspirators both real and imagined. Quite apart from the bloodshed, those were interesting times, in every part of which we must look for motives to immediate context, before anywhere else. Eliza could be a ruthless, even fiendish power politician; but she was also an extremely well-educated woman, and in her tastes, a pupil of the old school.

Indeed the Puritans frequently suspected their Queen, despite her own Protestant protestations, of being a closet Catholic; and suspected her successor King James even more. A large part of the Catholic persecution in England was occasioned by the need to appease this “Arab spring” mob, concentrated in the capital city. Their bloodlust required human victims. The Queen and then her successor did their best to maintain, through English Bible and the Book of Common Prayer, the mediaeval Catholic inheritance, while throwing such sop to the wolves as the farcical “Articles of Religion.”

The question is not whether Shakespeare was one of the many secretly “card-carrying” Catholics. I think he probably was, on the face of the evidence, but that is a secondary matter. It is rather what Shakespeare wrote that is important. His private life is largely unrecoverable, but what he believed, and demonstrated, through the media of his plays and poems, remains freely available. He articulates an unambiguously Catholic view of human life in the Creation, and it is this that is worth exploring. The poetry (in both plays and poems) can be enjoyed, to some degree, and the dramatic element in itself, even if gentle reader has not twigged to this, just as Mozart can be enjoyed by those who know nothing about music. But to begin to understand as astute an author as was ever born, and to gain the benefit from what he can teach — his full benevolent genius — one must make room for his mind.

May 9, 2014

Shakespeare: Original pronunciation

Filed under: Britain, History, Media — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 13:04

Jon, my former virtual landlord sent along an interesting link:

An introduction by David and Ben Crystal to the ‘Original Pronunciation’ production of Shakespeare and what they reveal about the history of the English language.

March 24, 2014

Interpersonal communication in Shakespeare, or “Juliet and Her Nurse”

Filed under: Humour, Media — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 08:40

Emma Pierson does a bit of statistical analysis of some of Shakespeare’s plays and discovers that some of the play names are rather misleading, at least in terms of romantic dialogue:

More than 400 years after Shakespeare wrote it, we can now say that Romeo and Juliet has the wrong name. Perhaps the play should be called Juliet and Her Nurse, which isn’t nearly as sexy, or Romeo and Benvolio, which has a whole different connotation.

I discovered this by writing a computer program to count how many lines each pair of characters in Romeo and Juliet spoke to each other,1 with the expectation that the lovers in the greatest love story of all time would speak more than any other pair. I wanted Romeo and Juliet to end up together — if they couldn’t in the play, at least they could in my analysis — but the math paid no heed to my desires. Juliet speaks more to her nurse than she does to Romeo; Romeo speaks more to Benvolio than he does to Juliet. Romeo gets a larger share of attention from his friends (Benvolio and Mercutio) and even his enemies (Tybalt) than he does from Juliet; Juliet gets a larger share of attention from her nurse and her mother than she does from Romeo. The two appear together in only five scenes out of 25. We all knew that this wasn’t a play predicated on deep interactions between the two protagonists, but still.

I’m blaming Romeo for this lack of communication. Juliet speaks 155 lines to him, and he speaks only 101 to her. His reticence toward Juliet is particularly inexcusable when you consider that Romeo spends more time talking than anyone else in the play. (He spends only one-sixth of his time in conversation with the supposed love of his life.) One might be tempted to blame this on the nature of the plot; of course the lovers have no chance to converse, kept apart as they are by the loathing of their families! But when I analyzed the script of a modern adaptation of Romeo and JulietWest Side Story — I found that Tony and Maria interacted more in the script than did any other pair.

All this got me thinking: Do any of Shakespeare’s lovers actually, you know, talk to each other? If Romeo and Juliet don’t, what hope do the rest of them have?

Update, 28 March: Chateau Heartiste says that this study shows that pick-up artists and “game” practitioners are right and also proves that “Everything important you need to know about men and women you can find in the works of Shakespeare”.

February 14, 2014

Shakespeare’s Richard III

Filed under: History, Media — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 08:02

John Lennard is a fan of William Shakespeare and it shows in this blog post:

The Imploding I

Shakespeare’s Richard III is the principal source of a figure still current in drama and cinema — the witty devil we love to hate. Fusing the role of the (aspiring) King with that of the Vice (the tempter in morality plays, who as a player of tricks and user of disguises was always more theatrically aware than his innocent victims), Shakespeare produced a role that from his first, mesmerising soliloquy, beginning the play, commands both amused and horrified attention. As witty as he is ruthless, and as witting about himself as about others, Richard dominates the stage whenever he is on it, and all his tricks come off marvellously — until they don’t.

I’ve just transcribed the Folio text of the play it calls The Tragedy of Richard the Third : with the Landing of Earle Richmond, and the Battell at Bosworth Field […] and I was struck by how potently verse and punctuation record Richard’s force and his final implosion. Here’s that famous opening soliloquy:

Enter Richard Duke of Gloster, solus.

Now is the Winter of our Discontent,
Made glorious Summer by this Son of Yorke :
And all the clouds that lowr’d vpon our house
In the deepe bosome of the Ocean buried.
Now are our browes bound with Victorious Wreathes,
Our bruised armes hung vp for Monuments ;
Our sterne Alarums chang’d to merry Meetings ;
Our dreadfull Marches, to delightfull Measures.
Grim-visag’d Warre, hath smooth’d his wrinkled Front :
And now, in stead of mounting Barbed Steeds,
To fright the Soules of fearfull Aduersaries,
He capers nimbly in a Ladies Chamber,
To the lasciuious pleasing of a Lute.
But I, that am not shap’d for sportiue trickes,
Nor made to court an amorous Looking-glasse :
I, that am Rudely stampt, and want loues Maiesty,
To strut before a wonton ambling Nymph :
I, that am curtail’d of this faire Proportion,
Cheated of Feature by dissembling Nature,
Deform’d, vn-finish’d, sent before my time
Into this breathing World, scarse halfe made vp,
And that so lamely and vnfashionable,
That dogges barke at me, as I halt by them.
Why I (in this weake piping time of Peace)
Haue no delight to passe away the time,
Vnlesse to see my Shadow in the Sunne,
And descant on mine owne Deformity.
And therefore, since I cannot proue a Louer,
To entertaine these faire well spoken dayes,
I am determined to proue a Villaine,
And hate the idle pleasures of these dayes.
Plots haue I laide, Inductions dangerous,
By drunken Prophesies, Libels, and Dreames,
To set my Brother Clarence and the King
In deadly hate, the one against the other :
And if King Edward be as true and iust,
As I am Subtle, False, and Treacherous,
The day should Clarence closely be mew’d vp :
About a Prophesie, which sayes that G,
Of Edwards heyres the murtherer shall be.
Diue thoughts downe to my soule, here Clarence comes.

Everything here serves to present Richard’s complete control, and it’s an excellent example of the Ciceronian style and balance that characterises much of Shakespeare’s most fluent and speakable verse. For all its dynamism the language is exceptionally balanced and structured, bracing opposites within lines (“Our sterne Alarums chang’d to merry Meetings”, “That dogges barke at me, as I halt by them”) ; within couplets (“Now is the Winter of our Discontent, / Made glorious Summer by this Son of Yorke”, “Vnlesse to see my Shadow in the Sunne, / And descant on mine owne Deformity”) ; and within the quatrains that dominate the grammatical structure (“And now, in stead of mounting Barbed Steeds, / To fright the Soules of fearfull Aduersaries, / He capers nimbly in a Ladies Chamber, / To the lasciuious pleasing of a Lute”). The whole flows as trippingly as commandingly from the tongue, as generations of great actors have found, and the language is so strong and clear that it can bear very different styles of presentation. The two best Richards I’ve had the luck to see on stage, Anthony Sher and Ian McKellen, could not have tackled the role more differently — Sher was seriously hunched and scuttling on calipers that became weapons, feelers, probes at will ; McKellen was a restrained and clipped army officer whose only visible deformity was a hand kept always in his pocket — but both could draw equal strength and suasion from the magnificent verse Shakespeare provided.

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