Shakespeare Sunday: Methinks, the Play Goes On A Bit Too Long

Endings are important and who am I to be an editor to Shakespeare.  However, every time I taught the play Hamlet, I found I kept wishing he had ended it about one page earlier.  I mean, the swordplay, multiple poisonings, and Hamlet’s long-awaited vengeance on Claudius are all very satisfying.  But then he ends the play with Fortinbras surveying the scene and morosely reciting the ever-so-forgettable lines:

Take up the bodies: such a sight as this

Becomes the field, but here shows much amiss.

Go, bid the soldiers shoot.

C’mon, man!  “Go bid the soldiers shoot”?  That’s really the best you’ve got for maybe your very best tragedy.  I’m always disappointed. Of course at the time, he probably didn’t suspect the enduring nature of Hamlet.  Maybe he was having a bad day.  Maybe he just decided, “Ye gods, fuck it.  I’ve got to just end this sucker.”

He certainly nails it in other plays.  The Prince, in Romeo and Juliet, surveys the tragic scene and succinctly and beautifully captures the mood of the moment:

A glooming peace this morning with it brings;

The sun, for sorrow, will not show his head:

Go hence, to have more talk of these sad things;

Some shall be pardon’d, and some punished:

For never was a story of more woe

Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.

I once had the chance to play Romeo’s father in our high school’s production of Romeo and Juliet, which was perhaps the most epically awful production ever, and yet that scene and those six lines had the audience sobbing nightly.

In Hamlet, a mere 50 lines before, he’s got the death of Hamlet and Horatio’s magnificent tribute:

Now cracks a noble heart. Good night sweet prince:

And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!

Boom.  Done.

Except for maybe one loose end.  The critical character known as “First Ambassador” needs to come on stage to inform us that “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead.”  Without that line, Tom Stoppard might not have ever had the chance to write his wonderful, absurdist play of the same name some 464 years (more or less) later.  That would have been a loss.

Happy Sunday everyone!  Don’t hesitate to leave a comment if you are so moved!

 

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Shakespeare Sunday: Everyone Dies

Happy Sunday everyone!  Last week when I wrote about Sonnet 18, I mentioned the irony in how the speaker in the poem brags about the immortality that his poem gives to his loved one’s beauty, when Shakespeare spends an awful lot of time reminding us of our fragile grasp on life.  That brought me back to Sonnet 73. Go ahead and read it again if it’s been a while.  I’ll wait:

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.

Just to bring a little more rigor to Shakespeare Sunday, I actually read some analysis of this poem, but what I was looking for was to see if there was any record of when each poem was written.  I was curious to see how much later 73 was written than 18.  No luck.

However, I did find lots of analysis and deep parsing of this lovely poem which would have completely ruined it for me, but I long ago quit paying much attention to literary criticism.  I enjoy reading some analysis to inform me of just how ignorant I might be when I start writing about literature, but am sometimes appalled at the nit-picking I start to find.  I sure hope that I didn’t kill the enjoyment of the poetry that I read with my students in a similar manner.  I did write about my approach to poetry as a teacher some time ago in a piece I called “I Don’t Hate Poetry.”

One analysis found the three metaphors that Shakespeare uses to be “cliched”–another writer might call them “timeless.”  Regardless, as a teacher it was great fun to play with these metaphors with students because most young people simply do not think in terms of metaphor.  They do not consider that the seasons, or that the cycle of the day, or that the burning of a fire is kind of like the progression of life from youth to death.

I particularly like the first four lines.  I’m not sure you can find a better example of iambic pentameter (just supposing you were looking for one) and they are maybe my favorite four lines of poetry to read aloud.  The image of naked branches as “bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang” seems just perfect; naked branches “where yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang.”

In the following quatrain, the speaker thinks of himself as being in the “twilight” of his life “which by and by black night doth take away.”  I was always intrigued by Shakespeare’s characterization of night as “death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.”  To think of sleep as akin to death seems totally appropriate to me.  It reaffirms my daily response to the overly-cheerful baristas at Starbucks who greet me every morning between 5 and 7 AM with the question “How is your day going?”–just a horrible question to ask me BEFORE I’ve had my twenty ounces of morning Joe.  The only thing I can think of to say is, “Well, I woke up this morning.”

In the third quatrain, the speaker admits he is no longer a bonfire, but just a collection of burning embers, soon to be extinct.

In the final couplet, we come to understand that the speaker seems to be speaking to a younger person and warning or advising him or her that one must “love that well which thou must leave ere long.”  Life is short.  Live long and prosper.

As I was warming up to write this piece (something that goes on all week!), I thought about that scene from “Dead Poet’s Society” when Robin Williams character takes his boys down to view the pictures of long-dead alumni of the fictional Welton Academy and delivers his famous “carpe diem” speech:

“Now I would like you to step forward over here and peruse some of the faces from the past. You have walked past them many times. I don’t think you’ve really looked at them. They’re not very different from you, are they? Same haircuts. Full of hormones, just like you. Invincible, just like you feel. The world is their oyster. They believe they’re destined for great things, just like many of you. Their eyes are full of hope just like you. Did they wait until it was too late to make from their live even one iota of what they were capable? Because you see, gentlemen, these boys are now fertilising daffodils. But if you listen real close, you can hear them whisper their legacy to you. Go on, Lean in. Listen… Do you hear it? (whispers) Carpe. (whispers again) Cape. Carpe Diem. Seize the day boys, make your lives extraordinary.”

Some critics thought this speech sucked also, but I like it.  Any movie that showed a teacher teaching with mindfulness and passion was OK with me.

Hope you’ve had a great week.  I promised my mid-week piece would be a check in on “Surviving the Trump Apocalypse” and I will try, but “Retired, Not Dead” will be on the road to Seattle, WA for a well-deserved vacation,  and I may just be having too much fun to write about politics.

Shakespeare Sunday: Poet Claims, “Yes I Am That Good.”

Sonnet 18

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 was always a lot of fun to work with in the classroom because students want to view it strictly as a love poem and because so much of the poem turns on the single word “this” in the very last line.  In case you’ve forgotten all of your Shakespearean sonnets, here it is:

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

Thou art more lovely and more temperate:

Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,

And summer’s lease hath all too short a date;

Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,

And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;

And every fair from fair sometime declines,

By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d;

But thy eternal summer shall not fade,

Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;

Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade,

When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st:

So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,

So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Easy to see why it is looked at as a love poem, yes?  I even found it listed by one website as a poem suitable for Valentine’s Day, and for the first eight lines, I could not agree more.  The poet finds his loved one more beautiful than a summer day, “more lovely and more temperate.”  After all, a summer’s day can have “rough winds” and can be too hot or perhaps obscured by clouds.  The poet recognizes that “summer’s lease has all too short a date” and as all things in nature “every fair from fair sometimes declines.”  All things natural pass through their time of youth and beauty, decline and eventually die, a theme Shakespeare returns to time and again.

But line 9 surprises us.  If all things natural (including his lover’s beauty) decline, how can he say that “thy eternal summer shall not fade”?  He spends three more lines declaring that her beauty is immune from time’s ravages or the “shade” of death.

How so?  The final couplet is the poet’s tribute to himself.  He has given her immortality because  “So long as men can breathe or eyes can see” they will be able to read his poem, the poem which has frozen her beauty in time. He assures her that “So long lives this (his poem), and this (his poem) gives life to thee.

Trying to figure out those last two lines used to drive my students crazy which was, of course, another reason I loved this poem.

Have a wonderful Sunday.  Check in later this week for some thoughts on Orwell’s 1984, and it’s also time to check in on how things are going with Surviving the Trump Apocalypse.  Cheers!

Shakespeare Sunday: Macbeth Needs A Nap

Welcome my 12 faithful congregants!  If you’d turn your hymnals to the tragedy of “Macbeth”, let’s take a look at a very short passage:

Methought I heard a voice cry “Sleep no more!
Macbeth does murder sleep”,
the innocent sleep,
Sleep that knits up the ravell’d sleeve of care,
The death of each day’s life, sore labour’s bath,
Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course,
Chief nourisher in life’s feast….

Macbeth (Act II, Sc II)

Even without knowing much about the context of this passage, I’ve always loved this image.  It seems to crystalized an image that I’ve always had of sleep–that it is a great healer of mind, body, and spirit. Whether it is a mid-day nap or turning in early to be able to shut my mind down to whatever may be troubling me, there is nothing like the retreat of sleep.  When I feel overwhelmed by exhaustion, worry, or anxiety there are sometimes where it is sleep alone that “knits up” and mends my soul.  Sometimes the clarity I have when I wake up is startling to me.

Of course, Macbeth has just murdered King Duncan in this scene and has a whole lot on his mind.  Not surprisingly, this little passage has been analyzed deeply but there is one simple (I like simple) aspect of it that I wanted to share.

Shakespeare often uses sleep as a metaphor for death or vice versa and so mixing them so closely here makes this passage even more interesting to me. He calls sleep, “the death of each day’s life” and then follows with two descriptions of it as a soothing “balm” that can cure the pains of both our bodies and our minds.

Then he calls it “great nature’s second course.”  Hmmm.  Does that make nature’s first course life and all that comes with it–experience, love, excitement, danger, sorrow, and death?

I needed some help from Dave’s blog “The Ape Philosophy” which can be found at (apeliterature.blogspot.com).  He suggests that:

“A “ravell’d sleave” is a tangled skein of thread or yarn. Macbeth uses it as a metaphor for the kind of contravention we experience when we have so many problems that we can’t see the end to any of them.”

Truth be told though, I need very little excuse, to find my way to bed in the mid-afternoon for my  escape into unconsciousness. You know how when you can’t get your computer, TV, router, smartphone, or tablet to work properly and after maybe an hour of frustration you remember that the best medicine for anything technological is to shut it down, talk nicely to it, let it rest a bit, and then start it back up?  Sleep is like that for me.  It’s my chance to shut down, reboot, and waken, energized and ready once again to enjoy what the rest of the day has planned for me.