Showing posts with label William Shakespeare. Show all posts
Showing posts with label William Shakespeare. Show all posts

16 September 2022

Canon Shots

 Some people make it a mission to read everything a writer puts out. Some multiple writers. I have several, plus a list from Harold Bloom.

Harold Bloom's List

Harold Bloom could be both fascinating and infuriating. But he did put forth an interesting list of novels to read going all the way back to Don Quixote and ending with recent novels Blood Meridian, Invisible Man, and Song of Solomon. For the most part, I've liked about every book on the list, though I found Crime and Punishment difficult. (A native Russian and one who knew the language said it loses something in translation.) I skipped two, one for sheer length and one for... Well...

I'm not exactly sure about the merit of a book where the author begins with his own literary criticism. I won't say who it was.

Still, it's a good exposure to classic literature, though there are some titles I wish he'd included.

William Shakespeare

The Bard is the English language writer. Hamlet, Julius Caesar, and A Midsummer Night's Dream are all cultural touchstones. The Tempest even gets remade periodically as science fiction. (Forbidden Planet anyone?) Getting a proper chronological list of plays is tough. Sometimes, they contain plays we have no copies of, like Loves Labours Won and Thomas More.

I started with all three Henry VI plays. For such a weak English monarch, it always puzzled me why he got three plays. Parts I and II were actually written later, but in the interest of continuity, I read them as a whole.

My favorites so far are A Comedy of Errors and Richard III. Romeo and Juliet is next up next. I read it in junior high, but that was a have-to. This is a want to. Loves Labours Lost was fun in places. I thought it read like an Elizabethan rap battle. Some, like Edward III, are slogs. In Shakespeare's defense, you can tell he was brought in to save Edward as it was disjointed and doesn't even read like one of his histories

I started going through the Bard's canon about six years ago. It'll probably take me another six to finish. 

Stephen King

Of course, he's the most popular American author in history. Somehow, a horror writer has supplanted writers of a literary bent. But King's horror is not the cheap horror of the sixties and seventies. It's not the all-out horror of Lovecraft (of whom Kind is a fan.) No, in King's novel, the devil moves next door, seems perfectly normal, and even asks to borrow your mower. Only he's worried about the guy that moved in across the street. He's the monster.

Like Shakespeare, he has his hits (Salem's Lot, The Stand, It) and misses (Cell, anyone?) King's real genius is world-building. The fictional Maine is as real as the one in our world. Castle Rock, for all its northern New England quirks (and monsters) is the small town everyone knows. It's how Stand By Me and The Shawshank Redemption resonate without being horror, but we're also sucked into various versions of It and The Stand when they come to television. He's even ventured into crime with the first two entries of the Bill Hodges Trilogy and Billy Summers, though End of Watch took a supernatural turn. So vivid is his worldbuilding that Richard Chizmar, his coauthor on two of the Gwendy books, wrote the second installment of the series solo while hitting all the notes that make Castle Rock Castle Rock. I've been reading his books in order, not counting the Bachman books, since about 2010. Now reading one a month, I plan to finish up, including the Bachman novels, next year. And the guy who wrote Fairy Tale is not the same one who wrote Carrie. Any writer worth his salt should find out how by reading his nonfiction masterpiece, On Writing.


Mark Twain

I dove back into Twain when his full autobiography came out. Twain didn't so much write his life story as he wrote the extended travelogue his publishers did not have the capacity to release. Tales of his early career and life sound either like backstory for Tom and Huck, the extended version of The Innocents Abroad, or one of his sarcastic essays where Mr. Clemens is as much the target of his satire as anyone else around him. When we get to the middle of his life, his narrative is both heartwarming and heartbreaking as he talks about his wife and daughters, two of whom he would outlive. His final years saw a dark cynicism, and possibly a bit of cruelty that he dutifully presents as an unreliable narrator. There's a reason he stipulated the work not be released in its entirety or in chronological order until 100 years after his death. I went back and reread Huckleberry Finn while waiting for the final volume. Then I went back to the beginning and read his travelogues, essays, and novels in order. I must say I actually prefer Twain's nonfiction to his fiction, but then if there were no Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn, there would have been no Hemingway, no Chandler, or even Stephen King.

And as one who appreciates a good smartass, I appreciate Twain as much as I appreciate his spiritual ancestors, Washington Irving and Benjamin Franklin.

24 April 2016

Shakespeare's Words at 400

by Dale C. Andrews 
William Shakespeare:  You will never age for me, nor fade, nor die.  
                                                              Marc Norman
                                                              Shakespeare in Love:  A Screenplay 
I understand a fury in your words.  But not your words.
                                                              William Shakespeare

       Shakespeare, we are told, died on his birthday -- 400 years ago yesterday. It was Shakespeare himself, in Sonnet 18, who predicted that his works would be with us "[s]o long as men can breathe or eyes can see."  That observation has proven prescient.  Shakespeare's plays and sonnets, after 400 years, are staking out a great case for immortality. But that is not to say they are also age-less. The English language has seen a lot of changes since Shakespeare gave up the ghost.

      Language can sometimes lull us into a sense of presentism. Because it evolves slowly it is easy to assume that it doesn’t really change all that much. But that is not the case. Language growth may be a slow process but it is also an inexorable one.  Measuring that growth is at its easiest when we are confronted with literature borne of a different time.  This is readily apparent in the plays and sonnets of William Shakespeare.  But before we get there, lets pause for a minute to contemplate more recent language changes.

       As discussed in a previous article, each year’s new edition of the Merriam-Webster Dictionary is accompanied by a description of new words that have been added in a race to keep up with the evolution of our language. We are about due for the 2016 update to this list, but back in spring of 2015 over 1700 new words were added to the the dictionary’s list of recognized words. These included “emoji,” “net neutrality,” and “meme.” Also on the list was the now nearly ubiquitous exclamation “WTF.” (I suppose this is helpful -- if someone asks what it means now you can simply say “look it up!”) 

       The editors of the dictionary take all of this vocabulary evolution very seriously. Their goal, after all, is not one of creating new words but rather of acknowledging the new words that have already become accepted in conversation. To do this, according to Merriam-Webster, the publishers must seek out words that have been “used in a substantial number of citations that come from a wide range of publications over a considerable period of time,” Merriam-Webster’s publishers note that “the word must have enough citations to allow accurate judgments about its establishment, currency, and meaning.” 

     Even when a word makes the cut its meaning may not be set in stone (or the dictionary page). Common and accepted words over the course of time may find their meaning completely changed. According to the Oxford Dictionary the words "learn" and "let," for example, now mean the opposite of their former use. Other words (a good example is “sanction”) continue to have directly opposite meanings based strictly on how they are used in a sentence. Other words evolve to mean different things in different geographic settings. If an issue is “moot” in the United States it is not ripe for discussion, but in England the word implies that the issue is. Similarly an issue that is “tabled” is ready for discussion in England but decidedly not so in the United States. (Talk about separated by a common language!) 

       All of this, however, focuses on the addition of new words and their subsequent evolution. But an evolving language also involves subtraction. Over the years there are many words and phrases that simply fall by the wayside, unable to keep up with their comrades. These fallen soldiers predictably linger on in the dictionary for a while, usually branded with the word “archaic,” before giving up their own ghost and disappearing altogether. 

     Literature is the best museum for such words. It is amazing how rapidly writing can become dated simply because the words chosen by the author no longer seem right to a reader years down the line. The more years there are between writing and reading, the larger the problem.

       And what better example of this than Shakespeare? The shear brilliance of Shakespeare's works has ensured that 400 years later they are still a familiar part of our world.  But that is not to say that reading or listening to a performance of Shakespeare is an easy task.

       We are all taught that Shakespeare’s greatness was partially based on the fact that he wrote in the language of the people. And there, as Shakespeare might have said, is the rub. The irony of Shakespeare’s use of language common to his time is that his literature becomes, as a result, difficult to parse today because centuries later many of his words are no longer those of the people. And I am not just talking about just an occasional “thy” and “thou." How about this from King Henry the Fourth, Part I
As the honey of Hybla, my old lad of the castle -- and is not a buff jerkin in a most sweet robe of durance?

        As a public service there are several sites on the internet that have been established solely to help the vocabulary-challenged reader muddle his or her way through Shakespearean prose and poetry. Here are just a few examples of common words and phrases used by The Bard that now require further explanation: 
  • Anon -- in a little while 
  • Belike -- with considerable certainty  
  • Betimes -- in good time 
  • Betwixt -- in the interval 
  • Bourn -- a boundary 
  • Bruit -- tell or spread rumors 
  • Buckram -- a coarse cotton fabric stiffened with glue 
  • Cap-a-pie -- at all points from head to foot 
  • Cozen -- be dishonest with 
  • Fain -- having made preparations 
  • Fardel -- a burden, literally a bundle 
  • Haply -- by accident 
  • Hautboy -- a slender double-reed instrument   
  • Hugger mugger -- to act stealthily or secretively 
  • Incarnadine -- redden or make flesh-colored 
  • Meed -- a fitting reward 
  • Mote -- a tiny piece of anything 
  • Nonce -- the present occasion 
  • Orison -- reverent petition to a deity 
  • Palter -- being deliberately ambiguous or unclear in order to mislead 
  • Rood -- a crucifix 
  • Shrive -- a contemptuous term of address to an inferior man or boy 
  • Sooth -- truth or reality  
  • Swain -- a man who is the lover of a child or young woman 
  • Thou -- the cardinal number that is the product of 10 and 100 
  • Vouchsafe -- grant in a condescending manner 
  • Welkin -- the surface of an imaginary sphere on which celestial bodies appear 
  • Withal -- together with this 
  • Wonted -- commonly used or practiced; usual 
And note that as helpful as all of this might generally be, none of it is any help when it comes to deciphering that King Henry the Fourth, Part I quote! 

       Of course the problem lies not just in the works of Shakespeare. His writing is a good example of the problem simply because it has endured so long, a process that ensures the maximum number of dated words. Pick up any classic golden age mystery and the same problem, to a lesser degree, presents itself even where only 75 years separates the pen from the reader. 

       And as words depart from the realm of accepted usage dictionaries must take note of this as well. Just as words are constantly being added to dictionaries, so, too, others are quietly disappearing. You will no longer find “aerodrome” in the Collins Dictionary. And, as The Guardian noted a few years back, that word is in good company: 
Other words on the [deleted] list include "wittol"– a man who tolerates his wife's infidelity, which has not been much used since the 1940s. The terms "drysalter", a dealer in certain chemical products and foods, and "alienism", the study and treatment of mental illness, have also faded from use. Some of the vanished words are old-fashioned modes of transport such as the "cyclogiro", a type of aircraft propelled by rotating blades, and charabanc, a motor coach. 
     It is probably inevitable that this process cannot take place without some folks voicing objections. The same fervor that inspires us to form groups committed to saving almost anything poised on the brink of extinction has also provided a catalyst for various groups to champion the restoration of some of the more colorful words that have been deemed, as a result of diminished usage, obsolete. And, truth be told, you have to admire some of these proffered candidates. Take, for example, the following gathered from various “save the word” sites scattered throughout the Internet: 
  • Apricity -- feeling the warmth of the sun in winter 
  • Beef-witted -- An inactive brain resulting from eating too much beef 
  • Brabble -- Loudly arguing about something inconsequential 
  • California widow -- A married woman whose husband is away 
  • Cockalorum -- A small person with an inflated view of themselves (in this election year wouldn’t that one come in handy!) 
  • Crapulous -- feeling ill due to over-indulgence 
  • Curglaff -- The shock of stepping into cold bath water 
  • Curmuring -- the rumbling sound produced by bowels 
  • Fuzzle -- To get someone drunk 
  • Gorgonize -- Projecting a hypnotic effect 
  • Groak -- silently watching someone while they eat in the hope you will be invited to join in 
  • Grumpish -- How you feel when you are grumpy 
  • Jargogle -- to confuse or bamboozle 
  • Jirble -- Decanting with an unsteady hand 
  • Lethophobia -- the fear of oblivion
  • Ludibrious -- someone apt to be the butt of a joke 
  • Lunting -- smoking a pipe while walking 
  • Resistentialism -- the malevolent behavior displayed (all too often) by inanimate objects (hammers in proximity to thumb, for example) 
  • Snoutfair -- Displaying a pleasing countenance 
       Joining the bandwagons and re-introducing any of these words into your own writing can be tempting. But beware -- by doing so you may risk showing your age.  And, as Hamlet decried:
Age, with his stealing steps, hath clawed me in his clutch.

12 November 2014

The School of Night

by David Edgerley Gates

The first of Anthony Burgess' novels I read, or at least finished, was NOTHING LIKE THE SUN, a re-imagining of Shakespeare's life. (I'd tried tackling A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, but found it too difficult.) Many years later, he wrote an extraordinary book called EARTHLY POWERS - which deserves a column of its own - but one of the last books he published in his lifetime was A DEAD MAN IN DEPTFORD. It revisits the Elizabethan age, one of Burgess' great passions, and looks into the mystery surrounding the murder of Christopher Marlowe. 
'Mystery' is an inexact word, because we know who killed him. Stabbed him above the eye, during a drinking quarrel. The question is whether it was arranged beforehand.

Kit Marlowe was a poet first, and then a hugely successful playwright. He and Shakespeare were born the same year, 1564, but Marlowe was a marquee name much earlier. DOCTOR FAUSTUS is probably the most famous of his plays, and the most quoted. "Why, this is hell, nor am I out of it." "Is this the face that launched a thousand ships?" "I'll burn my books." FAUSTUS also attached to Marlowe the reputation of being an atheist or a heretic, a damaging accusal.

He was also a spy. This has been disputed, but he was probably in the pay of either Lord Burghley, the queen's treasurer, or Sir Francis Walsingham, her principal secretary. Walsingham, a member of the Privy Council, was Elizabeth's spymaster, a secret and dangerous man. The dates don't always work, but Marlowe was often absent abroad, and his chief mission was apparently to penetrate supposed Catholic plots threatening the queen. More to the point, various criminal charges brought against Marlowe were dismissed or nol prossed, which meant he had powerful protectors. Finally, though, a warrant was issued on the charge of sedition, involving inflammatory anti-Protestant literature. Given the climate
of the time, however, this could have been a deception - a provocation, in present-day vocabulary, bait to draw out suspected conspirators.

In the event, Marlowe was ordered to appear before the Privy Council. He presented himself on May 20th, 1593, but the council didn't meet. He was told to keep himself available, until such time as they did. He was murdered on the 30th, ten days later, without ever testifying.

Four men spent the day drinking at a pelting house in Deptford. Kit Marlowe, Ingram Frizer, Nicholas Skeres, and Robert Poley. Frizer, Skeres, and Poley were dubious characters, loan sharks, confidence men, and all three of them had served in some capacity or another for the Walsinghams, either the late Sir Francis or his first cousin, Thomas, a one-time agent provocateur in the intelligence trade, now turned gentleman, and a member of the queen's court. At some point late in the afternoon, according to the inquest, Frizer and Marlowe got in a fight over the bill. Marlowe attacked Frizer, Frizer stuck him in the head with a knife and killed him. It was ruled self-defense. Kit Marlowe was buried in an unmarked grave. Frizer was pardoned inside of a month.

This much is known. The rest is speculation.

Sir Walter Raleigh's name surfaces. Although a favorite of Elizabeth's, he had many enemies, and his star rose and fell. There was plenty of malicious gossip being passed around. One story goes that Raleigh, thought to be no respecter or religion, hosted a coven of unbelievers, known as The School of Night. Marlowe was said to attend, as were Henry Percy, the Earl of Northumberland, and the astronomer Thomas Harriot. Nothing supports this, or even that the men knew each other, but it certainly thickens the plot, if plot there was. Supposedly, should Marlowe have been tortured, he might have incriminated Raleigh. This fabrication could have been circulated by Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, another of Elizabeth's favorites and a rival of Raleigh's. Essex went to the block in 1601, Raleigh himself was executed some years later, both men attainted by treason to the crown. No evidence suggests either of them had a hand in Marlowe's death. The circumstances have remained unexplained.

Shakespeare has the last word, in AS YOU LIKE IT. "When a man's verses cannot be understood, nor a man's good with seconded with the forward child, understanding, it strikes a man more dead than a great reckoning in a little room." The 'reckoning' refers to an unpaid bill, the 'little room' to a shabby kennel in Deptford.