Wednesday, January 29, 2014

William Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet (c. 1595)

Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting in Franco Zefferelli's 1968 movie



Is it e'en so? Then I defy you, stars!

There is a tragic point at which all common sense says: it's a million to one against, so you might as well give up.

This is the moment when love has to depart from this common sense, whose negative conclusions are death warrants.

When only a miracle can restore what you love, it becomes necessary to set about creating the conditions for a miracle.

And "Nede hath no lawe".


*

- Ese problema… ¿no será el de “Romeo y Julieta”? ¿Es que sus familias no están de acuerdo en esa boda?

The “situation” in Romeo and Juliet is a formidable statement, with the force of folktale, but it belongs to a much larger class of stories of in which social forces stand in the way of a wished-for marriage between two lovers. In most cultures parents have wished to have a say in their child’s choice of a mate. Perhaps the most usual case in real life is when there is some perceived difference in social class, when B is “beneath” what is due to A’s family. In that respect  Romeo and Juliet idealizes. Here, so far as class goes (“both alike in dignity”) the pair could hardly be more eligible for each other. They are perfectly matched in every respect but one, a historic enmity whose details never concern us – an arbitrary enmity. This is difficult for us to relate to, and Jerome Robbins was the visionary who in 1949 saw that the story could be about a cultural and ethnic clash: originally, he imagined a Roman Catholic Tony and a Jewish Maria, but as West Side Story developed the Jets became N. European-American and the Sharks Puerto Rican. This is such a natural transformation of the story that we tend to try and retro-fit it to Romeo and Juliet, but Shakespeare follows Brooke in making both families entirely Veronese (whatever unspecific thing this evoked for him) – though Tybalt does say, intriguingly, “This by his voice should be a Montague”.   

The enmity between the Montagues and the Capulets lacks the drive of ethnic/cultural antipathy; it also lacks an economic angle (such as we learnt to enjoy in that child of West Side Story, The Godfather). The family hostility imagined by Shakespeare is very unlike a feud or a vendetta, which would be patriarchally driven and enforced as duty. Here, on the contrary, old Capulet and (probably) old Montague are merely embarrassed by their legacy. Where the hostility still flourishes is among the younger men and the junior followers. It's far more like urban tribes than we might have expected. Some have inferred conclusions from this that tend to disparage the actions of the lovers and their unfortunate outcomes; they say that the lovers should not have acted against their families, that everyone would have come round in time. This is to revert unexpectedly to the moralistic stance of Brooke’s preface of 1562:

A coople of unfortunate lovers, thralling themselves to unhonest desire, neglecting the authoritie and advise of parents and frendes, conferring their principall counsels with dronken gossyppes, and superstitious friers (the naturally fitte instruments of unchastitie) attemptyng all adventures of peryll, for thattayning of their wished lust, usyng auriculer confession (the kay of whoredome, and treason) for furtheraunce of theyr purpose, abusyng the honorable name of lawefull mariage, the cloke the shame of stolne contractes, finallye, by all meanes of unhonest lyfe, hastyng to most unhappye deathe.

This is not where Brooke’s poem intends to leave us: he leaves a mixed impression, which is what Shakespeare also achieves, though with much greater subtlety. In Shakespeare’s play the dazzle of summer energies produces a range of flowers, of which love is one and violence another; it is truly about society but not in the same sort of way that West Side Story is.

*

In Act I Scene 2 Capulet advises Paris to contemplate the other beauties at his soirée, not just Juliet; later in the scene Benvolio gives similar advice to Romeo: don’t just mope after Rosaline, but take a look around. Capulet is not a tyrannical father (“My will to her consent is but a part”); Lady Capulet in Scene 3 is considerably more pushy, but Juliet – with no feeling of love in her breast, as yet, -  emphasizes her dutiful obedience as a pretext for holding herself back:

But no more deep will I endart mine eye
Than your consent gives strength to make it fly.  

However, love is in the air. The parents have in effect licensed it, and Juliet allows that license to open her heart, though not in the direction that her parents plan.  In Love’s Labour’s Lost a similar seasonal, masquing impulse had caused all the young men and young women to fall in love, very neatly into non-overlapping couples. Here, however, an older set look back on love: the Nurse, Lady Capulet, the worldly-wise Mercutio, Capulet sentimentally (“’Tis gone, ‘tis gone…”). Everyone’s talking about it, but where, for this pair of youths, is the real thing? Society, right down to the serving-men, is busy with the apparatus of a setting for love. Tybalt understands the solemnity as a distinctly family affair, a social ritual that a hostile outsider would naturally scorn; in effect, he betrays his consciousness of its intimacy. But Romeo sees himself, self-conscious lover, as different from the “light of heart” who will enjoy a dance. Mercutio wittily discountenances Romeo’s foreboding dream.  

So what happens to Romeo and Juliet is the old old story, across a crowded room, love in the air, all those clichés, but it is in contrast to the simulacra of love that the story surrounds them with, for them it is specific, it is love for a particular person.

But love is a funny thing because the person you care about doesn’t mean anything like the same to the people around you. Unsurprisingly, we older readers (and most of us are going to be older than Romeo and Juliet) end up, in a way, dissing the centre of the story, them. We take more interest in the other characters, we look elsewhere for our involvement, because these lovers are set against this background of older people and of society in motion. Some are more interested in the (entirely self-invented) story of Romeo’s search for the lost father-figure/moral-authority Mercutio than in Romeo’s current love interest – as if Juliet is just the new Rosaline or whoever.

When Romeo says “He jests at scars that never felt a wound”, we take it with a trace of irony against the speaker, we think he does not know anything about other people’s scars, and we note avuncularly the self-absorption of the young. We see him instead as the exercise of the will in a particular phase of a larger, seasonal, cosmic pattern:

The earth that’s nature’s mother is her tomb:
What is her burying grave, that is her womb;

Or

Two such opposed kings encamp them still
In man as well as herbs: grace and rude will;

Listening to Friar Lawrence, we place Romeo among these generalities. When Mercutio ribs Romeo in his social role merely as a devotee to Love, but is indifferent to (and, in fact, mis-identifies) the individual whom Romeo loves, then we see how this generalizing becomes wrong and irrelevant.

It’s not like any other love,
this one is different, because it’s us.

Much of Romeo and Juliet is about carving out that individual space within an indifferent society.

*

Or rather, failing to carve it out; but the lovers in the story are doomed, not so much by compelling circumstance as by the pre-existence of the story, which ends with their deaths. Most of Shakespeare’s plays have a source-text, but none follows its source more closely than this one. And Brooke’s poem belongs to the mid-century in spirit.

For never was a story of more woe
Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.

This is true. The sheer bad luck of Romeo not receiving the vital message and of killing himself just before Juliet wakes is heart-wrenching, because of our poignant awareness that his soul trembles on the brink, (if only Juliet would wake up NOW), of a bliss as seeming-miraculous as Leontes’ when the statue of Hermione comes to life. Instead, the lovers are united not in bliss but in despair, having the rare distinction of each being able to die heart-broken for the other’s death.

However, this extremity of woe and the prettily contrived situation that produces it belongs to a literary taste that Shakespeare was fast outgrowing. Brilliantly as he manages the final scene, you can detect a tension between Shakespeare and the story, very easily of course in hindsight when the play of ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’ in A Midsummer Night’s Dream makes hilarious mockery of this very artifice. We don’t quite believe that the deaths of these young lovers would really heal up mutual distrust between two families – it would be more likely to inflame it, each blaming the other.

Shakespeare’s main addition to the plot of this final scene is Romeo’s killing of Paris. Romeo, not knowing who Paris is, does try to spare him. But he calls himself a madman, and before that “savage-wild”. Woe is not wholly an appropriate reaction to a scene of wild exaltation in which each lover responds to the silent summons of the other, and in which both Tybalt and Paris are generously invited to participate in a fatal fruition of youthfully savage passions. Their story, Romeo's and Juliet's I mean, remains distinct and isolated from the woeful matter that the two families will remember.

*

As everyone knows, youth and age are central themes in Romeo and Juliet, and Shakespeare makes Brooke’s young Juliet two years younger still, to ensure we take the point. To accuse these lovers of lack of judgment is inappropriate. Nor do they have much to say to each other; or rather, they have a great deal, but Shakespeare adapts for them a sonnet language which registers emotions and does not pretend to be naturalistic. When it comes to talking about something the lovers revert flatly to practicalities. They are not chockfull of learning or philosophy or small-talk. They do not debate or discuss.

Hence Shakespeare simply glides past the one point in the action when they have something very serious to discuss, i.e. when Romeo has just killed Juliet’s cousin. The next time we see them together (III V), they have already said whatever needed to be said, and now are once more united in love and in suffering a parting. In fact throughout the play their conversation (which is really not the right word for it) is remarkably restricted.

First, there are the 18 lines of their meeting in I V: trance-like, magical, formal. Then, the great duet when time seems to stand still in II II – 193 lines, of which 135 are actual conversation, because the early part is Romeo hearing Juliet covertly. Third, the brief meeting before their marriage in II VI, around 20 lines in Friar Lawrence’s presence, of which only 11 involve directly speaking to each other. And finally the too brief aubade of III V, which ends so swiftly and in such painful contrast to the balcony scene – “Dry sorrow drinks our blood. Adieu, adieu” (III V 59).  In all, less than 300 lines from a total of nearly 3,000. Obviously, the lovers find it hard to meet. But besides, there is nothing they really have to say – not even that they love each other, because that announces itself just in the atmosphere they inhabit when they're together. Shakespeare did not know the metaphors of electricity or chemistry, but he knew about the thing they refer to.

The long conversation in II II is much concerned with the name Romeo, Romeo’s daring, Romeo’s danger. Juliet manifests her love for Romeo in trustingly using his name; she thus accepts him as a close presence in her life, as close as her family. Romeo on the other hand does not call her by her name at all; that name is for soliloquy. His awed respect instead comes out as “fair maid”, “Lady”, “love” – even in that last, with a faint tincture of possession. When, about to be married, he calls her “Juliet”, there is a slight awkwardness in the speech, which she reacts to. In their final conversation, both already harrowed by misfortune, their use of “love” to each other loses all sense of proprietary ownership. They know themselves to be, though married, quite outside the social structures of possession. They now seek only the security of companionship on a dark journey that will not end in this world. 



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trippel deckare - touring Sweden with Olle Villner

I'm reading a "deckare" (i.e. whodunnit) by Stig O Blomberg (1922-99), to brush up on my Swedish. Blomberg was a reporter and 1950s crime novelist who wrote under the pseudonym Olle Villner.

In fact this is an omnibus triple published by Semic. (Incidentally, I have noticed this book in IKEA bookshelf displays.)

In the later crime novels published under his own name, such as Dödens Pilar (Death's Arrows) (1987) - which is the one I'm reading now - Olle Villner has morphed into the fictional hero: a former reporter and crime novelist, now the author of non-fictional books about Provence.

Anders O Blomberg has put up the following web page about his father, with some fantastic images of the jackets of the earlier books.



http://www.epx.se/stigo/


Dödens Pilar (1987) is set in a guest-house in a small  fishing village on the coast of Bohuslän. (Olle Villner has decided to take a relaxing holiday break....)

Bohuslän is apparently a good locale for crime stories. Camilla Läckberg comes from Fjällbacka and her books are all about the "Tanumshede" force and are usually set in these parts. The appeal might have something to do with Bohuslän being the closest part of the west coast to Stockholm, a natural and scenic destination for week-ends away.

But back to Blomberg's book. In the early pages Villner makes friends with another guest, the elderly Hilding Sand. Good chance to witness old-style Swedish manners at work. The pair meet in the corridor and go down to lunch together, each addressing the other in the third person  (If Min Herre has no other plans, may I suggest a walk to the harbour?). Sand becomes quite confiding, but the third-person form is retained all through lunch. Afterwards, when he comes down to the garden after changing his shoes, he says formally: "As the eldest, may I propose that we lay aside titles?" After that they talk normally. This is about two hours after their initial meeting.

Dödens Pilar just about predates the mobile phone and the PC. This makes quite a big difference to the feel of it.  The world is considerably more spacious. It's much easier to "disappear": just walk out of your door. It's impractical to gain information about lots of things. The other thing that stands out to me is that everyone is reading books and magazines. (Though as the tension mounts, they are sometimes only pretending to read them.)


*


I've now read the other two novels in this omnibus. It's clear that in Blomberg's maturity the Olle Vilner novel has become a highly formulaic vehicle. But in a good way, I think.

Olle is the hero and gets involved in investigating a murder that happens to occur in some interesting part of Sweden that he happens to be visiting. He isn't a policeman himself, but he's first on the crime-scene and gets involved in investigating it. By around the half-way mark he's calling in his good mate Kent Alm, who's a senior detective in Stockholm. In  each book Olle meets a different good-looking girl; and through a series of shared scrapes and adventures they inevitably get close and are in full-on relationship mode by the time the novel ends. But each girl disappears in the gap between books, clearing the way for a new pursuit.

So we get the eternal story with eternal freshness, like a mummer's play or a James Bond movie. Olle gets to discover the new location and the new woman, both of whom tend to be rather more interesting than the murder mystery itself.

Brottplats Bergslagen (1989) is set in the distinctive mining area of Bergslagen (it traverses several county boundaries) north of Lake Mälaren. Murders in a secretive technology factory deep in the woods. Girl: red-haired, judo expert, police. This one is excellent, even better than Dödens Pilar.

Döden tar studenten (1988) is set in Uppsala on Valborgsafton (the spring festival; it takes place on April 30th). Endless night of student celebrations (plus a murder) in Olle's old stamping ground. Girl: trainee doctor. It's great to visit Uppsala in Villner's company, but this novel makes the mistake (in my view it's a mistake) of drawing attention to its own conventions. We meet Olle looking back with some melancholy fondness to his student-days of 20 years ago; hence we're made uncomfortably aware of the age-gap between him and his new girlfriend, who is (as she remarks) young enough to be his daughter. When Kent Alm arrives, he jokes that Olle is never far away from the prettiest girl in the place. I think Kent intended a clumsy compliment, but the girl not unnaturally starts to wonder what kind of serial womaniser this Olle must be. Meanwhile, Kent starts to probe Olle about what the girl is doing in the story at all? How come she's helping to clear up a mystery that she isn't even connected with? Is she, perhaps, playing a double-game?  It doesn't take much of this prodding before Blomberg's fictional construction begins to totter.


*

http://www.dast.nu/artikel/stig-o-blomberg-okanda-deckarveteran-med-stora-upplagor

Interview with the author, from 1998. In which he speaks out against immigrant hostility, already a disturbing and exploitable reaction of some elderly Swedes. (Optimistic predictions that such attitudes would disappear naturally along with the older generation seem to be contradicted by their subsequent spread across the western world.)





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Friday, January 24, 2014

home - leaving Norrland

The day of sun developed; the wooden church
(6)                               spires
the faint sighs of cloud in
                                    a clear blue sky,
the chorus of trees waiting to begin
                                    the concert.
Where does the sea find its home?
Where does the beetle in the pit find
                                    its home?
Where do the racing insects of a
                                   day
return, but to now and its noise,
like the squeaking of a carriage?  
                                    
 

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Thursday, January 23, 2014

William Shakespeare: Love's Labour's Lost (1593-94, revised 1597)


Perhaps this play has only a shadowy existence for the general reader. Nevertheless, it's commonly found on Shakespeare university courses, because the teachers want to expose students to Elizabethan convention, artificiality and wit.

As a child my only glancing contacts with it were A. Practising saying the word Honorificabilitudinitatibus (mentioned in the Guinness Book of Records) B Singing the incomparable Winter song about "Dick the shepherd blows his nail" in the school choir.

This song was probably added in the 1597 revision, most likely for the performance for Queen Elizabeth in Christmas 1597. (These are plausible scholarly guesses. where nothing is certain.)

The quarto title-page describes itself as “Newly corrected and augmented” and this seems to imply that there was an earlier “bad” quarto. (Compare the good Q2 of Romeo and Juliet, which describes itself as "Newly corrected, augmented, and amended", or Q2 of Hamlet, which is “Newly imprinted and enlarged to almost as much againe as it was, according to the true and perfect coppie.”)



Love's Labour's Lost, Title page of the Quarto


That the hypothetical bad quarto of LLL is not extant is not especially disturbing: after all, the bad quarto of Hamlet survives in only two copies, and was not rediscovered until 1827; and it was only in 1905 that a single copy of the 1594 quarto of Titus Andronicus, the earliest appearance of a Shakespeare play in print, turned up in Sweden.  It strikes me that there's something oddly polite about these good quarto references to their bad quarto predecessors. The Folio roundly describes all its quarto predecessors as "stol'n and surreptitious copies, maimed and deformed by frauds and stealths of injurious impostors". Given the Elizabethan taste for invective, you might have expected the good quartos to make a good deal of their own authoritative excellence and of their predecessors’ wicked incompetence: to describe themselves, instead, merely as “corrected” is in some degree to legitimize the earlier publications. Perhaps the former were not quite so illegitimate, or the latter not quite so legitimate, as we might suppose.

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Wednesday, January 22, 2014

William Shakespeare: Sonnet 81

(first appeared in Intercapillary Space)


Or I shall live your epitaph to make,
Or you survive when I in earth am rotten,
From hence your memory death cannot take,
Although in me each part will be forgotten.
Your name from hence immortal life shall have,
Though I, once gone, to all the world must die.
The earth can yield me but a common grave
When you entombèd in men’s eyes shall lie.
Your monument shall be my gentle verse,
Which eyes not yet created shall o’er-read,
And tongues to be your being shall rehearse
When all the breathers of this world are dead.
You still shall live – such virtue hath my pen –
Where breath most breathes, even in the mouths of men.


By this stage in the sequence the general form of the argument is familiar: we have exulted in many such resounding claims for the life-giving power of the author’s verses – the theme emerges first in Sonnets 15-19. Yet there is a difference here. The author is, at this moment, somewhat annoyed with his friend: because of the encouragement given to those rival poets. He finds himself almost arguing: I grant this, I grant that... (79, 82); he conceives himself as a plain-speaking, “true-telling” friend; and in due course he comes out with a pretty sharp rebuke at the end of Sonnet 84. The general form of all the sonnets to the young man is “how very, very much I love you” but here we are quite a long way from the tranced ecstasy that you can see at its very height in, say, Sonnet 31.

In Sonnet 81 Shakespeare is not ready to voice his resentful feelings. But it’s no accident that the first line of Sonnet 81 uses a form of words that in a different context could easily be a threat; no accident, either, that he flings so grim an idea as “rotten” into the mix – his over-emphatic self-abnegation (Oh I, I’m nothing, I’m food for worms) is just the kind of thing you say when you intend your lover to receive it as an accusation. He’s upset.

And there is something blurry in the sonnet’s words. The phrase “from hence” begins line 3, and then recurs in line 5, but the reader trying to make the two phrases parallel belatedly discovers their disparity: take from is a regular English expression, but have from isn’t, so then you have to go back on yourself and reinterpret what’s being said. Later in the sonnet Shakespeare uses “breathers” to refer to people alive in 1595; two lines later he is speaking about breath in the context of people living in the distant future. Throughout the octet our general belief that Shakespeare is referring to his sonnets is troubled by uncertainty about whether in fact he might be talking about the friend’s yet-unwritten epitaph, the pompous yet-unbuilt tomb, or even the rhetorical praise of his rivals. Only in line 9,

           Your monument shall be my gentle verse

is the expected statement perfectly explicit.

Explicit – but now problematized, as it never was in the mighty boast of Sonnet 19, nor in the frail hope of Sonnet 60. In these poems, as different as they are, we don’t really get involved in discussing the convention itself. Of course (we agree unthinkingly) verse confers immortality. Shakespeare’s verse does, anyway! But now we think: – Well, does it? What kind of immortality? How could it do that?        

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Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Near the Heyl

Early Forget-me-not (Myosotis ramosissima)


In Cornwall the Hayle Estuary is as tautological as the River Avon is elsewhere. The photo was taken near the West Cornwall golf links, where the footpath crosses down from St Uny Church Lelant. This is on the pretty west side of the estuary, where a popular branch line runs up to busy St Ives. 

This is the tiny deep-blue forget-me-not that you always find growing on sand dunes in April.

*



 The currents and whirlpools in the Heyl are unusual and sometimes deadly.

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2332714/Fears-swimmer-Jacob-Cockle-drowned-body-Hayle-whirlpool-zone-Cornwall.html

*

Hayle and its harbour (on the less sheltered east side) comprise a gappy working town in perpetual almost-regeneration, with various supermarket proposals circling offshore.


*

St Uny = St Euny, also the patron saint in Redruth, where the church guide explains that Uny was a Celtic missionary from the post-Roman period.

"Euny (or Uny) was one such missionary. The story is that he came from Ireland with Ia and Erth and that the three of them established churches and communities of monks or nuns in places that still bear their names (Lelant has St Uny church, St Erth is near Hayle, and St Ia is St Ives)."

More elaborated stories say that he came from a royal family in Ireland, was abducted to Wales by heathens, educated at St David's, made landfall at the Hayle Estuary and lies buried at Lelant. 

The feast of St. Euny (February 1st) was at one time the occasion for significant local merry-makings.

St Euny's name has also become attached to Carn Euny, a late Iron-Age site (c. 200BC-100AD) near Sancreed.


Dove's-foot Cranesbill (Geranium molle)

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Saturday, January 18, 2014

Evert Taube, Sommarnatt / Summer Night

Sommarnatt

Skärgårdsvals.



A
Kom i min famn och låt oss dansa här en vals, min Rosmari!
A
Natten är ljuv, le blott och dansa!
D
Lekfullt och lätt du svävar än som fjäril väckt av sommarvind
D                                A
än som den skyggaste hind.  
 [ NB Often quoted as "skygga hind", but I think "skyggaste" is Taube's original.] 
(f) A
   Stödd mot min arm du böjer nätt ditt huvud och ditt gyllne hår
A                 A7                  D
lyser av ungdom och doftar vår,
D                                  A
tvekande ler du åt de bevekande tonerna,
             E7                  A
lätt och lekande valsen går.


(a-e-f#-g#-a-b)

A
Fönsterna öppnas mot sommarnatten
Bm             Bm/A      E7/G#   E7
blommorna dofta och fjärdens vatten
A                                               F#m
speglar den stigande månen som röd över
E        B7       E      (g#-e-f#-g#-a-b)
Ingaröskogen står.
A                             F#m      C#7
Vinden har somnat i båtarnas segel,
C#7                               F#m
ut över Baggensfjärdens spegel
D
tonerna ila,
A
måsarna vila
E7       E9 E7  A
tysta, i månens ljus.


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Thursday, January 16, 2014

Sweet Chestnut (Castanea sativa)

Sweet Chestnut (Castanea sativa)

Sweet Chestnut (Castanea sativa). Photo taken in a woodland ride in Great Wood, Battle, E. Sussex on 19/10/13.

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Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Folk-poetry - another point about relativism

I've been reading the Kanteletar recently. Specifically, I'm talking about Keith Bosley's translation of (I think) about a quarter of the collection, which was published in the Oxford World's Classics in 1992. The collection was put together by Lönnrot as a companion to the Kalevala. These are the short songs and ballads of the oral Finnish tradition.

Of course they have been through quite a bit of literary transformation - both Lönnrot and Bosley took quite a creative hand - but that's a complication I ask you to set aside for the purposes of this note. Just take it that I'm reading folk-poetry (or folk-lyrics i.e. the words of folk-songs - there's no real distinction in this case).

I have hugely valued (and in that sense enjoyed) my copy of the Kanteletar in the twenty years since I got it. I have, as you know, a strong not to say obsessive allegiance to all things Fennoscandic. And I've dipped into it dozens of times. But the dips were always pretty short. And basically, it's only now that I'm reading it. And, no great surprise, I'm loving it.


Image from http://luovaapuuhastelua.blogspot.co.uk showing two pages from a collection of Kantetetar poems for children, with illustrations by Kirsti Gallen-Kallela.


 *

Anyway it's started me thinking about art-relativism again. In previous notes I've spoken about a basic distinction between inner and outer audiences. The inner audience is e.g. film fans, and the outer audience is e.g. people who don't give a stuff about films, don't go to the cinema, and usually change channels when a film comes on the telly. The point I made then was that arguing about the merits of The Wolf of Wall Street only makes sense within the inner audience. So far, so obvious.

I don't know if I stated, but I certainly implied, that the enjoyment of art only took place within the inner audience. The arguments about the merits of such-and-such a film matter because all  the audience members know what it's like to enjoy a decent film.

As for the people in the outer audience, I took it as definitional that they could look at and enjoy a whole load of other things (perhaps the film posters, the music, the popcorn, people-watching...), but not the artefact in question.

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Tuesday, January 14, 2014

William Shakespeare: Richard III (1591)

Lawrence Olivier as Richard, in the 1955 movie


Most of Richard III takes place in a peacetime that slowly but steadily goes rancid. When Richmond finally appears, war - a little "sharp" war for a great "perpetual" peace - is vindicated by contrast with the diseased peace in which Richard has had his own way until he even loathes himself. There's a freshness about Richmond's perspective, too:

That spoil'd your summer fields and fruitful vines (V.2.8)

True hope is swift, and flies with swallow's wings (V.2.23)

So Richard is a boar among the summer vines, not on the battlefield but domestically, among ladies and children and courtiers who in various ways bend over backwards to connive in not seeing what is happening; as it were in their very midst, although (so far as the actual executions are concerned) principally offstage. It's a peacetime society from which people disappear. 

Act I is brilliant from its opening words, and has sometimes seemed to unbalance the rest of the play. Here the dramatic argument is irresistible, and the scene that caps Act I is, unusually, a scene in which Richard is not present.

Elsewhere, for all the large swathes of Senecan rhetoric, it's the cynically vigorous language of the secret performers that stays in the mind (mainly Richard, but ably assisted by his sidekick Buckingham). Generally they explode in small bursts, not aphoristic but with the knee-hugging rightness of aphorism.

Why, madam, have I offered love for this,
To be so flouted in this royal presence?
Who knows not that the gentle Duke is dead?

Richard's delight in giving pain, the sharpness of his timing, makes us draw breath in an unholy joy of sheer admiration. So this was what drama was capable of. Only Chaucer, centuries previously, had a comparable command of pace.

Or Buckingham, greeting the Mayor with a perfectly-pitched performance:

Welcome, my lord: I dance attendance here.
I think the Duke will not be spoke withal.

Surprisingly it's only when these supreme performers are playing a part that we suddenly hear an exquisite naturalism, in contrast with the constrained rhetoric of Rivers, Grey, Duchesses and Queens.

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Monday, January 13, 2014

C minor

Tangle of mainly cocksfoot under sodium light in Manor Rd Ind Est, late on Christmas Eve.

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Friday, January 10, 2014

midwinter fungi






These photos were taken on 6th January. This was growing in my new garden in Swindon out of a bit of sacking that turned out to be hiding a tree stump. I don't know why you'd want to hide a tree-stump, perhaps stumps are health hazards or something, but anyway this rather gives the game away. The caps were as shiny as jellyfish.

I think it is the edible mushroom Velvet Shank (Flammulina velutipes) . According to this excellent site, Velvet Shank grows during warm spells in winter. Our winter has been nothing but one long warm spell so far, so that would figure.

But all I'm going on is the unusual date plus the dark stems and uncrowded gills and slimy cap and a general resemblance to other internet pix of F. velutipes. I'm totally not a mushroom expert so if you think it's something else please tell me!





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Thursday, January 09, 2014

William Shakespeare: Henry VI Part III (c. 1590)

Title Page of the Octavo


Up until now I have only ever thought about this play as one station in a larger progress, the great theatrical chronicle that, so far as we can see, established Shakespeare’s reputation as an important player among players. (His earlier Taming of the Shrew seems not to have made much of a splash.)

But 3 Henry VI must have been performed, as it was first published, as a separate piece intended to captivate and satisfy an audience on the night. It has its own identity, and since it happens that I’m re-reading it in separation from its invariable fellows, this seems an opportunity to look at it in a different way.

It’s a packed chronicle, unflaggingly vigorous and very fast-moving. In certain respects there’s a bludgeoning repetition: In Act I Wakefield (Lancaster win), in Act II Towton (York win), in Act IV Warwick (Lancaster win), in Act V Barnet and Tewkesbury (both York wins). Some producers have therefore sought to emphasize a spirit of weariness, a war that goes on too long, battles that become increasingly automatic and senseless. That testifies to a very humane distaste on the producer’s part, but it misrepresents the unflagging vigour. If the young Shakespeare gives us too many battles, that’s because everyone wanted to see battles on stage, not because everyone hated to see them. It was terrifyingly exciting. It’s when you cease to fear civil war that you become concerned with disapproving it.

To view these affairs in a coarser and more sporting spirit, the Lancastrians’ eventual defeat depends on the fatal weakness of their behaviour when they’re on top in Act IV: they needed to kill Edward, not imprison him. All the other battles end in some atrocity, but on this occasion the Lancastrian side is without its dependable killers; Clifford is already dead, and Margaret is still in France. So Warwick only deposes Edward – and feebly lets his brothers escape. And Edward rather gets away with the political errors of Act III.

Nevertheless, the play ends in only formal triumph for the Yorkists. Edward’s closing lines are dramatically hollow. We have just seen the three brothers  surround and slaughter Henry’s son; then we’ve seen Henry himself being murdered by Richard. This is not a happy foundation for triumph.

Besides, these brothers are by now individualized in ways that create deep fault-lines between them. In Henry’s son’s words:

Lascivious Edward, and thou, perjur’d George,
And thou, mis-shapen Dick...

They began as a loyal team, formidably assisting their father; they end as a crew.

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William Shakespeare: Edward III






This is a play which was published anonymously in 1596 and never attributed to Shakespeare until its claims were unveiled by Capell in 1760. In fact the play disappears from notice so abruptly after its second quarto of 1599 that this requires some explanation regardless of who wrote it - the likeliest is that its crude anti-Scottishness rendered it unperformable and therefore unwanted after royal reproof in 1598. And of course that might also explain its absence from the First Folio. For Shakespeare's presence is pervasive - two rather different Shakespeares indeed. In much of the play we are reminded of Shakespeare in his earliest period. But in certain scenes a more mature Shakespeare seems to emerge, e.g. the Countess of Salisbury scenes in Act II and the taunting scene before Poitiers in IV.4. One possible solution (as per Melchiori) is that Shakespeare was a minor collaborator on the first version c. 1591 and a couple of years later keyed in some revised scenes on his own. There are some indications that the author(s) of the original Edward III anticipated not having access to such features of the big London playhouses as an upper stage - e.g. surprisingly not making any use of the traditional "Enter besieged citizens on the walls" when dramatizing the siege of Calais; yet earlier in the play, when the Countess of Salisbury appears, she precisely is on these "walls" - so that might suggest a time-gap in composition, during which performance expectations had changed.

There is at any rate enough of Shakespearian echoes (and no-one else's - the occasional Marlovianisms were mere common currency) to more than justify the play's inclusion in a canon that already includes other collaborative plays. Indeed the question is not so much whether Shakespeare was one of the authors as whether anyone else but Shakespeare was involved. (The latest computer study proposes Kyd.)

And yet, reading this some thirty years after I last experienced reading a Shakespeare play for the first time, I feel a reluctance to wholly give way to its claims; a reluctance that, evidently, scholars have felt too. A little of this - I think, a very little - might be down to the lack of attestation; more, probably, is down to the patina that the canonized plays have all accrued - we read a play, even such as the Henry VI plays, vaguely aware of sitting among an audience that spans the centuries and includes enthralled and wise and reflective and hotly engaged responders. But still, when all this is conceded some other reluctance remains that is down to Edward III itself.      

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Wednesday, January 08, 2014

descriptive words

The arts of imaging -- descriptive words,
(19)        photos & musical scenes,
I would need them all, to begin to reveal
               this morning in October sand
so how can I think you will take a
               single step
into the place I want to share with you
-- one single step, to the smell of warmth
& a summer insect? A place I can't
              even go myself?
Go to the cities and the halls, search
              a hundred thousand results --
you've excelled, to even meet this poem, to
             be so absent as to come this far
astray from your life.  But there, it's all going off.
Doesn't it need your attention? You'll do better to
             raise your head. 

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Monday, January 06, 2014

Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593)

Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593)


[The unnamed portrait discovered at Corpus Christi College in 1952, in the form of two old planks that almost got used to house a hi fi system (the text in the link is roughly quoted from Park Honan's book). The inscription gives the year 1585 and the age 21, which fits Marlowe and no other student in the college records. He was there, thanks to a Parker scholarship, from 1580 to 1587.]

Dr Faustus (1588? or 1592?)

[Line references are to the Revels edition, ed. Bevington and Rasmussen (1993). But I have not necessarily stuck with their spelling or punctuation.]


The corpus of plays attributed to Christopher Marlowe makes a double and somewhat contradictory impression. On the one hand what you want to remember is a cleanness and directness that are intensely exciting; on the other hand, it’s rather a ragbag, with many pages and even whole plays in which our interest, unless stoked up by biographical considerations, is really quite tepid.

In the English-speaking world the two parts of Tamburlaine make a powerful, troubling statement, and one of enduring significance for our literature. But Marlowe’s “mighty line” and his confrontational immorality are local matters. Outside the English-speaking world, Marlowe simply means Dr Faustus, a formidable European classic, a key text.

This is so even though, most people think, Marlowe wrote only the pivotal scenes and left the foolery demanded by the Faust Book to be written up by an unknown collaborator. (Elizabethan collaboration, some people say, usually meant that the co-authors worked independently on the scenes assigned to them, and did not have a close knowledge of each other’s contributions.) The date of composition is uncertain, the evidence favouring 1588. The result of that collaboration is more or less represented by the version now known as the A-text, printed in 1604. More or less, because the text is short; some scenes are disordered and others seem to have disappeared altogether.  The A-Text of Dr Faustus makes quite modest demands on theatrical resources. It was well adapted to touring companies such as Lord Pembroke’s Men, who were presumably playing it during the recess of London playhouses in 1592-93. But when Dr Faustus became a long-running hit in London during the mid-1590s, there was an impulse to exploit the diabolical reputation that the play was earning by spicing it up with more devils and more spectacle, as well as re-working bits of clown repartee that had not worn well.  In November 1602 Henslowe’s diary records payment to  “wm Bvrde & Samwell Rowle” for additions to Dr Faustus. Byrde and Rowley’s dressed-up version is presumably the basis of what is known as the B-text, first printed in 1616. This had now taken over as the acting version, and in B there is some censorship of the language, reflecting the impact of the 1606 Act of Abuses. Both the printed versions are good plays, but A is the obvious choice for most purposes.

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Fulke Greville (1554-1628)

Fulke Greville, Lord Brooke (1554-1628)


MYRA

I, with whose colours Myra drest her head,
I, that ware posies of her own hand-making,
I, that mine own name in the chimnies read
By Myra finely wrought ere I was waking:
Must I look on, in hope time coming may
With change bring back my turn again to play?

I, that on Sunday at the church-stile found
A garland sweet, with true love-knots in flowers,
Which I to wear about mine arms was bound,
That each of us might know that all was ours:
Must I now lead an idle life in wishes,
And follow Cupid for his loaves and fishes?

I, that did wear the ring her mother left,
I, for whose love she gloried to be blamèd,
I, with whose eyes her eyes committed theft,
I, who did make her blush when I was namèd:
Must I lose ring, flowers, blush, theft and go naked,
Watching with sighs, till dead love be awakèd?

I, that when drowsy Argus fell asleep,
Like jealousy o’erwatchèd with desire,
Was ever warnèd modesty to keep
While her breath, speaking, kindled Nature’s fire:
Must I look on a-cold, while others warm them?
Do Vulcan’s brothers in such fine nets arm them?

Was it for this that I might Myra see
Washing the water with her beauties, white?
Yet would she never write her love to me;
Thinks wit of change when thoughts are in delight?
Mad girls may safely love, as they may leave;
No man can print a kiss: lines may deceive.


Sometimes, though not as often as we pretend, a poem leaps out of the page and hits you between the eyes. Thus it was for me with Myra.

It’s a poem whose strength and inclusiveness (not the most expected virtue of a lyric in that era) are manifest in the opening lines. The lines all start with “I”, but  it’s Myra who swamps them with her tender thoughtfulness. In the first line “colours” must mean something heraldic or emblematic, such as a Greville ribbon. Myra, we gather, made her own decision to wear this ribbon; but the posies that he wore were made up for him by her. Perhaps, like other powerful persons, he enjoyed the holiday of “going along with it”. She even scrawls his name, while he’s still asleep, using I suppose the cold charcoal of the morning hearth (for clearly, this was a consummated relationship). All of this persuades us that the poem’s penultimate line is in earnest: Myra loved madly enough, when she did.

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