Shakespeare Sunday: The Madness of King Trump

I’ve decided that it’s the transitive property of equality that keeps bringing me back on Sundays to interpret Shakespeare in light of the Trump presidency.  Or maybe vice versa.  I think the transitive property (if A=B and B=C, then A=C) applies here for the following reason:  Shakespeare wrote tragedies; the Trump presidency is a tragedy; therefore a big chunk of what Shakespeare wrote relates to the Trump presidency.

I wasn’t alone in noticing this phenomena this week as there were several articles about the new play that envisions Trump as Julius Caesar.  I noted the comparison also in the Shakespeare Sunday post “Pride Before the Fall.” However, this week Trump’s bizarre Cabinet meeting brought comparisons to King Lear.  One by one, as Trump beamed, each Cabinet member fell over themselves to tell him what it honor and a blessing it was to serve him (note in the picture that, when not speaking, the Cabinet members look awfully Pope-faced).

Just as Lear invited his three daughters to express their love to him as he decides just how to partition up his kingdom, clearly someone less elegantly put these poor fellows up to this silly show.

Lear at least does it with class as he demands:

Which of you shall we say doth love us most?

That we our largest bounty may extend

Where nature doth with merit challenge.

And then the groveling begins.  First Goneril proclaims:

Sir, I love you more than words can wield the matter;

Dearer than eye-sight, space, and liberty;

Beyond what can be valued, rich or rare;

No less than life, with grace, health, beauty, honour;

As much as child e’er loved, or father found;

A love that makes breath poor, and speech unable;

Beyond all manner of so much I love you.

Just as at the Cabinet meeting, it became important to out-toady the previous speaker and likewise Regan feels a need to out do her sister:

Sir, I am made

Of the self-same metal that my sister is,

And prize me at her worth. In my true heart

I find she names my very deed of love;

Only she comes too short: that I profess

Myself an enemy to all other joys,

Which the most precious square of sense possesses;

And find I am alone felicitate

In your dear highness’ love.

It is Cordelia alone who dares to be honest, to speak truth to power.  When asked by Lear what she can say that will make him feel even better about himself than the proclamations that have come before, she says, simply, “Nothing.”  An astounded Lear, urges her on, in essence, begging her to come up with something praiseworthy, but Cordelia honestly replies:

Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave

My heart into my mouth: I love your majesty

According to my bond; nor more nor less.

For her crime, Lear not only withdraws her part of the kingdom, but advises her that from this point forward she will be a “stranger to my heart and me.”

What a moment it would have been if just one of those “leaders” had been brave enough to say, “Hey, Mr. President, do we have time to talk about some issues here.  You know, like soldiers dying in Afghanistan, congressmen being shot up on a baseball field, the entire country waiting to find out about health care changes?”

As Anna North, opinion writer for the New York Times pointed out in her article “President Trump’s King Lear Moment” (May 17, 2017) well before the above-mentioned Cabinet meeting:

He seems to lack a Cordelia who will speak to him honestly. Instead, Mr. Trump has been Regan and Goneriled all the way to the presidency, flattered and coddled by his advisers, the Republican establishment and his family to the point where flattery and coddling are useless and no amount of careful management can keep him from revealing state secrets and then bragging about it on Twitter.

That’s it for this Sunday!  Have a lovely Father’s Day wherever you are.  While you are relaxing in the recliner take a look back at the piece I posted earlier this week called “My Museum.”  You might like it.

 

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Shakespeare Sunday: Smooth Talker

R: If I profane with my unworthiest hand

This holy shrine, the gentle sin is this:

My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand

To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.

J:  Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,

Which mannerly devotion shows in this;

For saints have hands that pilgrims’ hands do touch,

And palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss.

R:  Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?

J:  Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.

R:  O! then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do;

They pray, grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.

J:  Saints do not move, thou grant for prayer’s sake.

R:   Then move not, while my prayer’s effect I take.

Welcome to the weekly literary nerd edition of “Retired, Not Dead”!

Most of you will recognize this as the very first words exchanged between Shakespeare’s “star-crossed” lovers from maybe his most well-known tragedy, “Juliet.”

OK, it’s actually known as “Romeo and Juliet” but if you’ve read the play, you know that this is really Juliet’s story.  Romeo is pretty much an accessory.  Juliet gets the great speeches, the deepest conflict, and the most achingly perfect death.

However, in the passage above, Romeo does have his moments.  It took my faithful poetry anthology Sound and Sense (Arp–9th edition) to point out to me that this lovely exchange, when lifted from the play, is actually a sonnet written as dialogue.

Romeo has been struck with the lightning bolt of love when he sees Juliet for the first time, as I was when I first saw Olivia Hussey playing Juliet in the 1968 film.  I  thought it was cruel for Franco Zeffirelli to unleash this 15-year-old beauty on my 15-year-old self when I first saw the film.

OK, the dialogue.  The beauty of Romeo’s appeal to Juliet for a kiss is that he frames himself (his lips, rather) as “pilgrims” approaching a “shrine” and then continues to work the worshipful metaphor with references to “saints,” “devotion, and “prayer.”  Juliet plays along as she tries to chastely and gently deflect his desire for a kiss.

Thankfully for Romeo, her resistance only lasts for fourteen lines of poetry before she allows his reverent kiss.

Ah, young love in iambic pentameter.  It doesn’t get any better than that!  Happy Sunday, everyone!

Shakespeare Sundays: The Readiness Is All

I’ve worked hard about not going all English teacher on all of you, my faithful 15 readers, but part of me has wanted to bring a little structure to the blog to keep me writing on at least a weekly basis.  Let’s see how this goes. I’d like to bring you a passage from Shakespeare on the weekends that we can talk about.  I’ll share what I can, and please feel free to add your comments.

“Not a whit, we defy augury: there’s a special

providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now,

’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be

now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the

readiness is all.”

William Shakespeare, Hamlet

I taught this play for years but always struggled with this passage syntactically. In Act V, Hamlet is about to go into a “friendly” fencing match against Laertes, a man with a grudge, since it was Hamlet who caused his father’s death.  Hamlet’s best friend, Horatio, cautions Hamlet to withdraw from the match if he has any misgivings.

Above is Hamlet’s reply. I’ve always interpreted it as kind of an existential statement.  “It” seems to be his death.  If he is to die now, that just means he won’t be dying in the future (“tis not to come”), but if he isn’t meant to die in the future, he is meant to die now.  He reassures us that no matter what, he knows that he will die, like all of us (“if it be not now, yet it will come”). I’m thinking the actor would have to hammer that last WILL.  Death is inevitable, “the readiness is all.”

I think about this passage a lot.  I admire Hamlet’s resignation to the truth of the moment.  I think about mortality often.  I can say with some certainty that I won’t see the year 2043.   I don’t expect to see 90.  Waldron men do pretty well getting into their eighties, so 2038 is certainly reachable.  That gives me about 20 more years to do whatever I might want to, to see what I still would like to see.  Sounds like a lot, except for when it is your last 20 years, when you’ve already seen 20 years go by three times.

I don’t think of it as being sad or morbid.  It just is.  As Seth Avett says in his song The Perfect Space:

I wanna grow old without the pain,/Give my body back to the earth and not complain.

My life has been good.  I suspect it will continue to be so for a while, but if “the readiness is all” then I’m ready.