Saturday, April 23, 2011

Wherefore This Blog? (Shakespeare Birthday Edition)

A few days ago, I was contacted by someone from the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. A lovely surprise! A very nice woman from the Trust asked if I could contribute a post to the Shakespeare Birthday blog-a-thon they're putting together over there in Stratford-upon-Avon, where, pace Oxfordians, the Bard took his first and last breaths, on or close to the very same day--April 23.

This post will be one of fifty or so written by bloggers and Twitterers (tweeters?) all over the world. It's a totally cool idea! If you want to see, hear, and read what other bloggers are thinking about on this Happy Shakespeare Day, check out the project site.  There are lots of blogs and Twitter feeds out there I never knew about, so I'm pretty excited to have found them. And really proud to be part of the festivities. I have a strong suspicion whence came the call, since this blog isn't really on the international radar. So thanks, Jonathan, for thinking of me.

When I started this blog in August of 2009, I began by trying to explain why I was embarking on such a weird, time-devouring, and yes, anachronistic project.  Why should anyone who isn't a tenured or soon-to-be-tenured Professional Shakespearean want to devote so many man- or woman-hours to reading and commenting on the plays, scene by scene? We live in an era where brevity, in addition to being the soul of wit, is the only sure way to make an impression. Attention spans are shrinking faster than the polar ice shelf, and no one (a well-meaning friend warned me) is going to want to read about Shakespeare's plays in detail, unless they have to for some class paper or exam. Indeed, the list of bloggers on the SBT site are mostly Twitter links. I don't tweet, myself, because I'm basically a long-winded sort who needs time and space to think things through. Besides, whenever I look at anyone's Twitter feed, I invariably feel like I'm listening in on a party I haven't been invited to. Everything looks like a non sequitur. And all those #'s and @'s are off-putting.

But Will, I think, would have loved Twitter. He'd have no trouble with the 140-character limit. In fact, he'd probably take it as a challenge, and make all kinds of clever puns about hash, hashtags, feeds, feeding, etc. 

But back to me. I'm not good at writing about myself. I hate confessional writing of any kind. That's why I write about literature. Writing about Shakespeare lets me explore the Big Questions without getting mired in my own contradictions. But I will say this much: this blog has helped me through some rough patches, both large and small. I mean, we've all endured

...the whips and scorns of time
Th'oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely,
The pangs of disprized love, the law's delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of th'unworthy takes.

Advice columns are full of this kind of thing. My boss is a bastard. I'm getting old and unattractive, and I fear I'll never be loved. My boyfriend dumped me. A patently inferior candidate got the position I wanted.  These mundane agonies lead to lawsuits, prayers, and Dark Nights of the Soul, and they're cumulative, too. After years of feeling angry about this kind of stuff, some people go off the deep end.  Life isn't fair.  The world can be vicious, or just indifferent. Justice is seldom, if ever, accessible to those who have been wronged. People in authority are pompous, callous asses much of the time. And let's face it, the web is Contumely Central. But reading or hearing Hamlet say those beautiful lines helps. Because beauty happens in spite of injustice, cruelty, and loneliness. Yes, it does. And there's nothing those insolent contumelious jerks can do to stop it. Is that enough to make up for all the wrong stuff? Of course not. But it's a good analgesic, for sure.

Now I have friends--actually most of my current friends--who find Shakespeare difficult and not worth the time. This is too bad, but I understand. The language is hard. Who says--or understands--words like "contumely," anyway?  But, at the risk of sounding old-school humanist (which is what I am, but never mind), we need Shakespeare. Because basically, he's an optimist. Without being a sentimentalist.  Hamlet wonders if life's an unweeded garden, and for a time, he believes it is. But in the end, he's at peace. He feels connected. He's not a misanthrope anymore. Lear's an old fool, a selfish aristocrat who can't see beyond his own vanity. But at the end, he cares about humanity. He sees the looped and windowed raggedness he'd ignored for most of his life, and knows he's no better, and no worse, than the rest of humanity. And knowing this, feeling it at the gut level, makes him (paradoxically) better. More human in the best sense.

Will's not naive, though. This kind of transcendence doesn't happen in every play. The Merchant of Venice ends on a sour note. As does Othello, the play I'm blogging now. Sometimes the badness does swallow up everything good. Sometimes, as in The Merchant, people never escape their smug cocoon, and realize how badly they've messed up. They go on congratulating themselves on their goodness and moral rectitude--and they can, because they've constructed a whole moral system that hides the truth behind some very attractive illusions. But in revealing hypocrisy, making us see the illusion for what it is, Will makes a leap of faith about humanity. He bargains that we'll get it, and learn from it. And that's a kind of optimism, too.

Will has had some bad ideas, as well. They're beautifully-written bad ideas, but bad nonetheless. Romeo and Juliet is, to my mind, a beautiful Bad Idea Play. I wrote a whole post about that, so I won't belabor it here. In all fairness, there were a lot of historical forces behind this bad idea--a desire to shake off the musty notions of the past, to embrace and valorize the Private Life, and so on. But it's still a dangerous play promoting dangerous ideas to Today's Youth.

Ah, my age is showing again.

This blog, I guess, is my own leap of faith. An extended exercise in optimism. I think there's still a place for Shakespeare in our culture. We still ask the same questions, we're still wounded by the same doubts, we're still mad about the same injustices. And the language--it's difficult, sure. I know that, and that's why I do some translating here. Once you understand the words, you can hear the poetry.

The ancient Anglo-Saxon word for "vocabulary" was "word-hoard." I like that, because a hoard can also be a treasure-trove. But Shakespeare's English isn't just a collection of forgotten words--it's a distant music that calls us out of our solipsistic reverie, reminding us that we are speaking creatures, and that language is more than just a tool for making demands. It's an opening to beauty, to empathy, to history, and yes, to possibility. Shakespeare isn't just a voice from the past, to me. His plays give me a sense of continuity, a moral foundation, and a fabulous soundtrack to the little dramas that make up my life.

That's why I'll keep reading and writing about them. Happy Shakespeare Birthday, everyone.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Witchcraft and Warcraft

I put a spell on you, because you're mine
You better stop the things that you're doin'
I said "watch out, I ain't lyin..."
I ain't gonna take none of your foolin' around
Ain't gonna take none of your puttin' me down...
I put a spell on you, because you're mine.

Well, that's Othello in a nutshell. Okay, just kidding. But that's the soundtrack to today's post. If you want to hear the cheesy 1960's version I grew up with--i.e., the Creedence Clearwater Revival one--you can laugh at a goofy Jurassic-era video here. I love the spinning heads, and the bowl-cut hairdos. Believe it or not, this was the essence of cool back when I was a tween.

Witchcraft, love spells, infatuation. We still think in these terms, don't we? Although it's usually gender-specific. Women put spells on men, rendering them stupid and malleable. Whipped, as my brothers used to say. It's a ancient idea--remember that the witch Circe turned Odysseus' men into pigs, just because she could. Women bewitch men sexually, strip them of their rational armor, and leave them grunting in the mud. Long before the invention of literature, women's witchery--sexual allure--was seen as a threat to civilization itself.

If you make the idea more gender-neutral, i.e., if you concede that women can be as bewitched by sexual desire as men, it makes some sense. How else to explain the fact that so many brilliant, gifted, and hyper-rational people have been known to behave like lunatics when in the throes of infatuation? Infatuation makes us fatuous. Seduction leads us away from the truth, into the land of fantasy. Etymologically, "love" derives from the same root as "belief." Love is an act of faith, a turn away from reason, a leap into the emotional abyss that Freud called the Unconscious. No wonder people thought of it as a kind of enchantment.

Will invokes this idea a lot. In Antony and Cleopatra, Antony and Pompey both refer to Cleo as a seductive "witch." In Much Ado About Nothing, a comedy that's thematically analogous to Othello (in that both deal with irrational jealousy fueled by the poisonous rumors of a malevolent misanthrope), Claudio contends that is a witch
Against whose charms faith melteth into blood.

I like that quotation, because it perfectly captures both the magic of sexual attraction and the violence of jealousy. Faith melteth into blood, indeed. A lot of what we call "domestic violence" can be understood in just that way.

In Othello, Brabantio turns the tables, accusing Othello of bewitching his daughter into marriage. As the exotic outsider, Othello takes on the feminine role. He's mysterious, alluring, dangerous. And to a European audience, ugly by virtue of his color. Lacking beauty, he must have used necromancy. Desdemona's way out of his league, so how else could he have won her? Brabantio isn't subtle here--he's sure that Othello must have used some dark arts to make Desdemona overlook his dark skin:

O thou foul thief, where has thou stowed my daughter?
Damned as thou art, thou hast enchanted her,
For I'll refer me to all things of sense,
If she in chains of magic were not bound,
Whether a maid so tender, fair, and happy,
So opposite to marriage that she shunned
The wealthy curled darlings of our nation,
Would ever have, t'incur the general mock,
Run from her guardage to the sooty bosom
Of such a thing as thou--to fear, not to delight.
Judge me the world if 'tis not gross in sense
That thou hast practised on her with foul charms,
Abused her delicate youth with drugs or minerals
That weakens motion. I'll have't disputed on.
'Tis probable, and palpable to thinking.
I therefore apprehend and do attach thee
For an abuser of the world, a practiser
Of arts inhibited and out of warrant.

What did you do with my daughter? Because logically, she has absolutely no reason to want you. You're freakish, and so ugly that people would mock her for choosing you. She's not even interested in marriage--she rejected all the "wealthy curled darlings of our nation," after all.

I love "wealthy curled darlings." It conjures up (so to speak) images of obnoxious prep-school date-rapists in the William Kennedy Smith mold. Like Roderigo. I can definitely see him as captain of some lacrosse team on the East Coast. Date rape isn't a bad analogy here--Brabantio asserts that Othello may have "abused" Des with "drugs or minerals/That weakens motion." Slipped her some roofies, as they say these days. So he's either enchanted her, or he's drugged her. Because that's the only way a good girl of good family could possibly fall for a sooty-bosomed thing like him.

And how does our hero answer these wild accusations? Like a civilized man of reason. Othello's aware that he's too valuable to the Venetian state to be thrown in prison by an irate dad. Public achievement trumps private shenanigans every time--or at least when municipal security is at issue. Othello's services to the state shall, in his own words, "out-tongue" Brabantio's complaints. The Turks are threatening to invade Cyprus, and Venice--as well as Venetian trade--is in peril. Othello, a gifted general, is too valuable to imprison. Brabantio, for his part, is sure that the Duke will be on his side, because

...if such actions may have passage free,
Bondslaves and pagans shall our statesmen be.

If a sooty-bosomed foreigner can steal the daughters of good Venetian aristocrats, then all social hierarchies will surely topple, and mere anarchy will be loosed upon the world. So we have two threats--a military threat, from the outside, and a social threat, from the inside. Venice may fall to the Turks, or to the lower classes. Brabantio is pretty clear about which threat he takes more seriously.

In the midst of this squabble, the Duke and his cabinet--or whatever they called it--arrive in a flurry of anxiety over the impending Turkish invasion. The private world recedes before the threat of war. It's a bit disconcerting, this interruption--but not unlike the structure of Antony and Cleopatra, where the drama shifts continually between the public world of Rome and the erotic, dreamy realm of Egypt. Will plays with a similar opposition here--Venice is the rational, ordered world of public men, while Cyprus will prove to be a far more subversive place, where unconscious fears and desires overwhelm reason and law.

But that's for later. Now, Othello has to answer the charge of kidnapping and witchcraft. Brabantio states his case before the Duke, claiming that his daughter's been enchanted and/or drugged by the Moor:

She is abused, stol'n from me, and corrupted
By spells and medicines bought of mountebanks,
For nature so preposterously to err,
Being not deficient, blind, or lame of sense,
Sans witchcraft could not.

"For nature so preposterously to err..." What does it mean? It means that Desdemona has veered off course, emotionally and, by implication, morally. Maybe even metaphysically--that would be a racist's take on it, for sure. Will uses "err" here (and elsewhere) in the sense of "knight errant," but also in the sense we understand it now--making a mistake. To err was to wander morally, to take the sinister left-hand path. Desdemona has wandered away from her own nature. Since she's not intellectually disabled or mad, she must be bewitched.

So how is this standoff resolved? The way everything unfolds in this play--through storytelling. Othello, though he claims to be a rough, crude man of war, nonetheless promises to tell a story that will answer the charge of sorcery:

...Rude am I in my speech,
And little blessed with the soft phrase of peace,
For since these arms of mine had seven years' pith
Till now some nine moons wasted, they have used
Their dearest action in the tented field,
And little of this great world can I speak
More than pertains to feats and broils of battle.

From the age of seven until nine months ago, I've been a soldier. So I don't know how to talk to fancy, peacetime folks like yourselves. I totally hear an echo of Henry V  here, when King Harry is wooing Catherine, and says all that stuff about being a plain soldier who can't talk pretty to ladies. Which is an act, of course. Harry's an actor, and everything he does is contrived.

But Othello isn't. He really is a man's man, a soldier first and a lover second. He doesn't know much about women, or courtship, or any of it. He continues,

Yet, by your gracious patience,
I will a round unvarnished tale deliver
Of my whole course of love, what drugs, what charms,
What conjuration and what mighty magic--
For such proceeding I am charged withal--
I won his daughter.

A round unvarnished tale. That's the witchcraft, of course. Othello wins Desdemona by telling her stories about his adventures. Travel narratives, really. It's a long speech, this unvarnished tale about tale-telling, so I'll save it for next time.

Or rather the time after next. Next time--this Saturday, to be exact, I'll be blogging with about fifty other bloggers in honor of Shakespeare's birthday. Alleged birthday. It's a blog-a-thon sponsored by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. I'll have a link to the "birthday site," so you can (I think) read what other people are writing, too. It should be fun.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Treason of the Blood, Part 2

I haven't posted in almost a month, I know. I think the whole weird authorship thing--and some nastiness that hovered around it--sort of derailed me for awhile. Which is why I didn't post any of my remaining authorship stuff. I was the recipient of some mean-spirited, overly-personal diatribes, one of which was delivered by my Oxfordian old friend. Former friend, I guess. So that bummed me out, and I just decided to let the blog go a for a bit. And to (probably) let the authorship posts go forever. Or maybe just for a long while. There seems to be no room for respectful debate among a certain segment of the authorship folks. And frankly, I'm just not all that interested in the subject. I only wrote about it to satisfy my own curiosity, really.

Anyway, back to Othello.

When we last saw Brabantio, Desdemona's dad, he was standing outside in his nightgown, having been awakened by those two gossipy frat boys, Iago and Roderigo. Iago has taken off, the better to maintain his "honest" facade. Brabantio is left to lament his daughter's perfidy with her creepy ex-suitor, Roderigo. Although he rejected Roderigo's suit previously, the white guy now looks pretty good. Because not only has Desdemona run off, she's run off with the Moor.

Now Will's plays are chock-full of disobedient daughters. Desdemona, Hermia, Juliet, Cordelia, Jessica, Rosalind--all face the choice between father and lover, and all turn their backs on Daddy. It's also worth noting that Ophelia, who made the opposite choice, ended up sleeping with the fishes. Okay, floating in a brook...but the point is that Will's a good Protestant. He believes in marriage, believes that a woman's duty to her husband supersedes the loyalty she owes her father. Cordelia captures this idea in a nutshell, just before Lear disowns her:

Good my lord,
You have begot me, bred me, loved me; I
Return those duties back as are right fit,
Obey you, love you, and most honor you.
Why have my sisters husbands, if they say
They love you all? Haply, when I shall wed,
That lord whose hand must take my plight shall carry
Half my love with him, half my care and duty.
Sure, I shall never marry like my sisters,
To love my father all.

The wicked sisters, of course, don't love their father at all. Much less "all." But their pretense is yet another example of how wrong things are in Lear's kingdom, because the very idea of choosing the father over the husband was unnatural to Renaissance Christians. The moral center of Protestant society was the family. At the root of family, the chaste marriage. "Chaste" meaning faithful, not sexless.

Although I can't help remembering this scene from Monty Python's The Meaning of Life. Right after that great "Every Sperm is Sacred" song...

Sorry, silly digression. Anyway, when Brabantio accuses his daughter of betraying her "blood," he's not just talking about race. He's talking about the allegiance he feels a daughter owes to her father, above all others.

...O, treason of the blood!
Fathers, from hence trust not your daughters' minds
By what you see them act.

Fathers, don't trust your daughter's outward behavior, because she likely harbors perverted thoughts and desires underneath all those obedient smiles and nods. This notion of the "false front" is a leitmotif in the play, of course. Don't trust what you see on the surface, because the truth is somewhere else. Black can be white, and white can be black. Fair is foul, and foul is fair...oh, wait, that's Macbeth.

It's a concern of the theater, of course--false fronts, duplicity, masquerades. Because that's what the theater is all about. Pretense. But underneath the makeup, costumes, and crafted speeches, we're vouchsafed (love that word!) a glimpse of the truth, as well. The theater is fundamentally neo-platonic, isn't it? What you see isn't precisely what you get, but if you look below the surface, beneath the mask, you can see what's real, and true, and timeless. But of course there's a lot of anxiety about this, too--especially in Will's plays. That's why you have men playing women playing men in the comedies, for example. Because the "truth" is a slippery business. And masks are seductive.

A topic I'll deal with more when I blog another comedy. Which will probably be after Othello. If, you know, I ever finish this play.

So, when Brabantio finds out about his daughter's love for another man, he calls it betrayal. She chose her own desire over that of her dad. Bad girl. Her desires belong to him--for her to own them, and act on them, is the worst kind of disloyalty. Father knows best. And of course, being a good Protestant didn't mean being a feminist, or even a social liberal. Daughters were supposed to cleave unto their husbands, but Daddy was supposed to pick the guy out and hand her over. That's why we still have that weird "who gives this woman in marriage" thing in the wedding ceremony. Nowadays it seems quaint and old-fashioned, but for a long time, it was serious. The father literally did "give" his daughter--she was his property, and he disposed of her as he saw fit. As Old Capulet tells Juliet, "An you be mine, I'll give you to my friend." I own you, so I'll give you to whomever I please.
Now Will consistently shows us that this kind attitude leads to tragedy. Or, in plays like A Midsummer Night's Dream, improbable comedy. The point is, he's not ambivalent on the subject. Daughters should be allowed to marry for love, not duty. Individual desire trumps outmoded social custom. Needless to say, theater isn't life, however.  For several centuries, aristocratic dads doubtless enjoyed a night of Shakespearean theater, then went home and married their daughters off to the richest, oldest creep they could find, her wishes be damned. Will was pretty far ahead of his time on this issue.

Apropos of fathers and daughters, I recently came across this story about the so called "Christian Daughters Movement," which is an offshoot of--what else?--the so-called Christian Patriarchy Movement. Personally, I find the term "Christian Patriarchy" a tad redundant, but never mind. The groups promoting these ideas claim biblical authority--you know, because women in the Bible didn't go to college or marry whomever they wanted, today's religious women shouldn't, either. They should stay at home with Daddy until he says it's okay to get married. To the guy he picks out for them. Just like Juliet's dad, and Hermia's, and Desdemona's. Yep, the Christian Daughters Movement is fertile ground for Shakespearean tragedy. Not to mention creepy abuses of the non-literary sort.  I find it interesting that this "return" is romanticized as a "movement." If you read the subtitle of this "manifesto," you'll see that it claims to offer "a vision of victory for single women of the 21st century."  Victory over selfhood, I guess. And responsibility. And maturity. All of which goes to show that in some weird pockets of our postmodern, tech-saturated culture, the Old Ideas still live on. Or fester, depending on your perspective.

Next time, Love Spells! Sort of...