Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Passionate Pilgrim

None of the poems in “The Passionate Pilgrim” are good.

Most likely, Shakespeare wrote only five of them, though the publisher back then claimed he wrote all. There are 20 total, the authors of the others are sometimes known, other times not.

The best poem in the little collection is not Shakespeare’s and it’s not much of a poem. It’s very simple and straight-forward, more like song lyrics than poetry, but it really moves along in a simple and affecting way. That guy had potential. Too bad he never got famous. Oh, wait, he did: Apparently, it was Christopher Marlowe, Shakespeare’s great competitor:

Come live with me and be my Love,
And we will all the pleasures prove
That hills and valleys, dale and field,
And all the craggy mountains yield…

But if you compare them the other poems (and assuming Shakespeare really only did write five of them), you see a difference. Shakespeare is more assured than the others and more importantly, his words carry more weight. The others are flouncing around, it’s all shepherds and Adonis and love and lying in the grass. Shakespeare gives you the feeling that he is going beyond that. In the best cases, he plays with logic in a paradoxical way.

Here’s a presumably non-Shakespeare beginning (Poem Nr. 4):

Sweet Cytherea, sitting by a brook
With young Adonis, lovely, fresh and green…

Here’s Shakespeare (Poem Nr. 1 / Sonnet 138):

When my love swears that she is made of truth
I do believe her, though I know she lies…

It’s not just images or pretty scenes of love, immediately there’s intellectual connection.

Also, he nails the endings. He knows that it’s the end that more impresses the reader, and it’s strange that the other poets sometimes don’t seem to get that (oddly enough).

Here’s Nr. 4 again (the poem is about Cytherea trying to seduce the beautiful but inexperienced Adonis – he, being stupid, resists):

Then fell she on her back, fair queen, and toward:
He rose and ran way; ah fool too froward!

I like his foolishness, but it just end it with a little comment thrown at his back while he beats it is a let-down.

Here’s Sonnet 138:

Therefore I’ll lie with love, and love with me,
Since that our faults in love thus smother’d b e.

All of a sudden, everything is wrapped up and the thought is also somehow new – a conclusion that surprises and satisfies.

Shakespeare mastered 1) the art of challenging and surprising the reader and 2) the art of the ending.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Weirdest line

(in Lucrece, but maybe in Shakespeare so far):

For men have marble, women waxen, minds.

As the Shakespeares of today say: WTF?

Friday, October 22, 2010

The Rape of Lucrece

It seemed to me when I read the long poem “The Rape of Lucrece,” that something completely different was happening than what had happened in Shakespeare’s works so far (assuming the chronology of his works is right).

Lucrece is about a mythical/historical event from pre-Republic Rome in which the beautiful Lucrece ist raped by the ruler of Rome, Tarquin, then she kills herself and after her body is paraded through the streets the people rise up, kill Tarquin and establish the republic.

It sounds really boring. I have a hard time imagining an interesting rape, except maybe as porn. I mean, you know what’s going to happen. The only way to make it interesting is if suddenly the rapist and victim turn out to be someone they didn’t think they were – the victim turns out to be the president’s wife who’s snuck out of the White House to meet a love, and now the Rapist is in big trouble. Or as a comedy: the rape takes place in some kind of funny place where the rapist is continually struggling to open a lawn chair or tripping over toys left lying around by children or something like that.

Shakespeare does the same thing – the post-modernist thing – he did in “Venus and Adonis”, which was to slow time and go off on every possible digression he can find. Between the time that Tarquin, who is a guest in Lecrece’s house, gets out of bed and goes to her room and rapes her, the narration goes all over the place and it becomes a rumination on motivation, rationality and animal desire:

Tarquin wonders how he can do this, knowing he’s taking a huge political and personal risk, knowing he’s not going to think it was worth it in the morning, but still this animal desire, so overpowering in the night, cannot be denied.

Good line:

The sweets we wish for turn to loathed sours
Even in the moment that we call them ours

He’s not a psychopath, he’s everyman, who, late at night returning home alone and lonely, passes a whorehouse and tells himself: Don’t go in there, it’s a waste of money, it’s a waste of time, you don’t need this, in the morning you will regret it, but he keeps circling the block until finally he gives up and goes in.

The discussion during the rape and Lucrece’s actions and ruminations afterward are similar – self-aware and self-reflective, but not in a psychological way, more in a universal way. Shakespeare grasps at these big, abstract ideas: What is time? He even puts in a detailed art-historical description and critique of a painting, and Lucrece wonders how outward appearances can so well disguise inward character.

The amazing thing is: This isn’t just a pot-boiler, like “Venus and Adonis” is an erotic pot-boiler, it’s intellectually satisfying, it makes you think about a series of abstract ideas that nonetheless are applicable to you.

No one screams and goes nuts. Lucrece doesn’t do what rape victims in TV shows do today, “I just closed my eyes and went to a better place”. That’s one the great advantages to pre-Freudian writing: You can use action as a platform for ideas or whatever you want. Nowadays the only use of rape in literature is to create shock and pity, and I’m so tired of that. Victims always have to be victims, evil deed-doers always have to by sick psychopaths. Everyone needs therapy, everyone’s a victim, everyone’s always suffering.

You could argue that Shakespeare is not treating rape as the horrible thing it really is, the need for control, the breaking of a human soul, etc., and I would say: fine with me. I’m tired of that. I get the point already that rape is bad and hurts. Frankly, I can figure out that rape is horrible just by imagining it, I don’t need a psychologist to pop up and explain: “It’s not about sex, it’s about control.”

I want to hear something new, I want to hear what the writer has to say, about anything, really. As long as it’s intelligent and engaging. I really like the feeling that there is a restless, coherent brain behind the prose I am reading, and that he’s talking to me and not just parading schoolbook emotions past my eyes.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Fickle, false and full of fraud

I just misquoted Venus’s last words to my girlfriend:

“Fickle, false and full of fraud.”

“What’s that?”


“And what about men? Good, gullible and goofy?”

Venus and Adonis

“Venus and Adonis” is real work to read. It’s one long string of love clichés without anything really happening and on top of that there’s something unpleasant about it: I couldn’t avoid the feeling that I was reading a love poem written by a frustrated female high school teacher to one of her boy students with peach fuzz on his lip.

It’s a long poem that largely consists of the goddess Venus knocking a boy hunter off a horse, trapping him in the grass and dousing him in love poetry. In the end he escapes and is killed by a boar and Venus is sad. That’s the story, but it’s really just an excuse to go endlessly on and on about love. In the first three quarters, the rhetoric doesn’t end, it’s a love poetry marathon, Venus can’t stop whispering sweet moaning things into his poor disinterested ears and drooling over him like a dirty old man over a sleeping teenager. It’s kind of embarrassing for Venus.

Rhetorically, everything Shakespeare does well later is already here, but flat: The metaphors, etc. But they are somehow loveless and pedestrian. In some sections, he just strings one love metaphor after the other as if he’s going through that thesaurus of his he had in his brain, filling space. Probably he really was filling space, too. It’s a published poem – he never published his plays – and presumably had to fit a certain amount of pages:

Even as the wind is hush’d before it raineth,
Or as the wolf doth grin before he barketh,
Or as the berry breaks before it staineth,
Or like the deadly bullet of a gun…

You want to keep going with the list:

Or as the foot is kicked before the teeth are broken,
Or as the crap is crapped before the foot steppeth in it,
Or as the thesaurus opens before the word is spoken…

Still, there are some interesting things about it.

First of all, Shakespeare picks a duality again. Right at the beginning he states the conflict: She wants love, he wants to hunt. He doesn’t bother to set it up or show why he loves the hunt and she hunts for love – he just states it so he can skip all preliminaries and get right into the thick of it.

Then there’s the comparison to the other famous version of the story, from Ovid. But that version is flat and unambitious. In Ovid, goddess and pretty boy are lovers. Shakespeare turned it into a story of unrequited love, and there is a lot of drama in this heavy-breathing goddess trying to seduce a young boy that has a lot in common with a wet noodle.

But the really interesting thing is the inner monologue, because that’s really what Venus’ rhetoric is. The kind of thing that modernists and post-modernists would do later, right down to Harold Brodkey, who could extrapolate whole pages of gush from a single motion, Shakespeare was already doing: Turning a few moments of action into a bottomless pit of feelings spewed out in endless monologue.

The action seems to go on and on, but really they’re just grappling with each other for a few moments: She grabs him, he gets away, that’s pretty much it. But every moment, every attempted kiss, is argued endlessly out with dialogue that is really inner monologue pushed to the surface, then layered again, examined and reexamined and spun around, going around in circles searching for a way into some kind of center but never finding it. Which is, come to think of it, much like what a lover does in his mind.

As far as the poetry itself goes, there are some good parts. But they are not in the gushing first section. It gets good when the woods get dark and Venus’ soul with it, and she wanders about filled with dread for no particular reason, foreseeing his death, for example, or toward the very end, when Venus gets her final monologue about the horrors of love, which I really like:

Venus speaking:

“Since thou art dead, lo here I prophesy,
Sorrow on love hereafter shall attend:
It shall be waited on with jealousy,
Find sweet beginning, but unsavory end;
Ne’er settled equally, but high or low,
That all love’s pleasure shall not match his woe.

It shall be fickle, false und full of fraud,
Bud, and be blasted, in a breathing while;
The bottom poison, and the top o’erstraw’d
With sweets that shall the truest sight beguile;
The strongest body shall it make most weak,
Strike the wise dumb, and teach the fool to speak.

It shall be sparing, and too full of riot,
Teaching decrepit age to tread the measures;
The staring ruffian shall it keep quiet,
Pluck down the rich, enrich the poor with treasures;
It shall be raging mad, and silly mild,
Make the young old, the old become a child.

It shall suspect where is no cause to fear,
It shall not fear where it should most mistrust;
It shall be merciful, and too severe,
And most deceiving when it seems most just;
Perverse it shall be, where it shows most toward;
Put fear to valour, courage to the coward.

It shall be cause of war and dire events,
And set dissension ‘twixt the son and sire;
Subject and servile to all discontents,
As dry combustions matter is to fire.
Sith in his prime death doth my love destroy,
They that love best, their loves shall not enjoy.”

Monday, August 2, 2010

Bouncing with Two Gentlemen of Verona

Watching two fictional characters bounce from one end of the extreme to the other in their desires and motivations for no apparent reason, I wondered if that is possible in life, in my life for example.

I would have to say: Yes.

One of my “bounces” took place over a long period of time (unlike anything that ever happens in a Shakespeare play). I realized that I did not want to be a Mormon.

I was raised a Mormon and discovered Germany when I was sent on a mission here, and I believed in the church with a hot fervency that was like holding on with the tips of my fingers to a reason to life. But even then, in the beginning, there was an alternative in my mind: To be able to write, they said, you had to break out of a strict moral confines and a conforming society and experiment, see the other side, see all sides, be free of ideologies to observe what life really is. Well, all that was theory. What bugged me most was a single sentence: “There has never been a great Mormon writer.” I knew there was truth to that and if I was ever going to be a writer…
Yet, should I sacrifice God and the Truth just for a career and earthly kudos? What kind of a superficial soulless man am I?

I didn’t break out until there was more reason to do it.

In Germany, at 30, I realized that my life itself was crippled by the church, contained, dominated. My will was not my own, it was like a child’s, who asks permission for everything. It was the midlife-crisis-at-thirty that made me leave the church.

That may say something about me as a writer – that I am not dedicated enough. Maybe. You know the old Faulker addage about being willing to sell your grandmother.

It may also say that the dream of career was never the most important thing in my life, though I’d always thought it was. Life itself, what life is, the experience of it, was always more important, though I didn’t know it.

The second bounce was, as with Proteus, a woman.

I really was all fire and lust over this one beautiful, mysterious and sensual woman, and I still am (like many men, I tend to fall into love often but never really out of it). But she was not an intellectual, a writer, a brainy type. It was inevitable that I would meet her opposite: A writer. Also mysterious, also sensual, but it was not her sex I was after. It was her brain. As soon as I met her I knew I had to have that brain, and I made the trade-off quickly and without thinking twice.
Women like to say that men only want sex, but it’s not true. Even if they say it. Even if they believe it. Sex is the carrot before the jackass and the first order of business, but “urgency” is not “priority”. We confuse that sometimes. It’s sex and sexualized women we think about constantly and look at on the street, but what we really want is usually something else. Sometimes we don’t know it until we are faced with both options.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

5. The Two Gentlemen of Verona

Everyone says this is Shakespeare’s worst play and they have a point. The plot is half-baked, the characters are comic-book-cut-outs and the language is all clichés. Much of it is a real displeasure to read. People say the best parts are the parts about the clownish servants, mainly Launce and his monologues about his madcap dog (if this really is Shakespeare’s first comedy, these are his first of many funny servants), but even these are not worked out.

1. Comedy:

Shakespeare’s comic strategy in this play seems to consist of three elements: 1) the funny servants, 2) sarcastic asides, especially in one comic dialogue in which Julia, the wronged lover disguised as a boy servant, provides them, and 3) everyone’s a little bit kooky in the sense that they do things that don’t make sense. Today people would call these characters “unmotivated” and unbelievable. If you put them all in clown suits and made them fall all over each other while they say the lines they say, maybe you would get a laugh: I can’t imagine any other way to make it work (yet, the play was successful with early audiences).

But still, Shakespeare must have been thinking something when he wrote this, and if you look closely you can see signs that there was some kind of idea behind it.

2. Violent Dualism:

The main reason why the characters seem to act so unbelievably is that they are constantly going from one extreme to another without warning. That becomes especially visible in the end. Proteus, the Evil Gentleman, nearly rapes Silvia, the lover of the Good Gentleman Valentine. Valentine preaches at him for about half a minute, Proteus repents and asks forgiveness for all the bad things he’s done against his pal Valentine throughout the play, Valentine forgives him, they are close friends again. All this you can accept if you really want to. Then Valentine says, “Okay, since we’re friends again, I’ll give you the love of my life Silvia, because friendship is greater than love.” If you’ve taken anything in the play seriously up to now, that’s the last straw, you’re the last one in the audience to walk out. It’s just bizarre, this character veering so suddenly away from everything he has worked for and believed in, and it makes his love to Silvia, which he is constantly preaching about, a joke.

On the other hand, this is a comedy. I can imagine what Shakespeare was trying to do: Throughout the entire play, he plays with dualities; he shows people jumping from one extreme to the other.

In the beginning, Valentine and Proteus discuss what is best, love or career (more or less). Proteus is all for career. Then he meets Julia. Suddenly he’s all for love. (Julia too, is all back and forth about Proteus.) Then he meets Silvia (who is in love with Valentine) and he completely forgets Julia and is head over heels for Silvia. Everything he talks about in theory flies out the window immediately. He doesn’t know his own heart at all, it’s all just talk. Nor does he know what a horrible bad person he is until he meets Silvia and plots to steal her away from Valentine.

Sudden reversal of personality characterizes everyone in the play: Valentine, in exile, meets robbers who want to kill him, but instead they make him their boss. It’s all crap in our eyes, completely out of character from beginning to end. But it’s also all about people saying one thing and doing another and even surprising themselves, doing it.In the end, when Good-Gentleman Valentine offers to hand over the love of his life, for whom he has sacrificed all, to his friend, whom she hates and who has just tried to rape her, Valentine is again doing what he thought he wouldn’t do: He’s showing that friendship is more important to him than love, even though it’s love he can’t stop taking about thought the play.

Of course, Valentine also proves thusly that he is a wimp in general compared to Proteus’ more predatory nature. Then there’s the gay thing: Depending on how you play it, you can make a good case for Valentine simply being secretly in love with Proteus all this time and Silvia just an elaborate beard. This theory makes a lot of sense in the end, but there’s not much in the rest of the play to back it up – Valentine never pines for Proteus when they’re apart – so it probably wasn’t some kind of conscious thing on Shakespeare’s part.

3. Plotting: The Boxing Model vs. the Bolero Model

Shakespeare’s idea of plotting is taking shape. So far I see two methods:

In Richard III he used “The Bolero Model” – that is, he keeps slowly building up one idea until it implodes. With Richard, it was his way to the throne plastered with bodies. The bodies kept piling up, Richard kept getting more and more evil. There was impressively little resistance throughout the play – we’re just astounded again and again as Richard proves himself more and more evil. I kept thinking, if I were to stage it I would set up a huge checklist with all the names of everyone he has to kill in order to get the keep the throne, and whenever he gets one more step toward ultimate power, he’d check off another name. Finally, in the end, resistance gets its act together and finally fights back, and Richard gets his come-uppance. But the resistance doesn’t fight back until the very end.

In Two Gentlemen, Shakespeare uses the Boxing Model: Resistance is immediate and continual. Every time a protagonist makes a move, the antagonist makes a counter-move. It’s slug for slug, back and forth.

The Bolero method only works if build-up is fascinating enough, and Richard of course is a fascinating character. The one-step-forward-two-steps-back Boxing Method keeps us on the edge of our seats no matter if the character is weak or not: We want to know if the protagonist will reach his goal and get anxious every time he experiences a setback. In Gentlemen: Everything Valentine and Proteus do gets reversed, and they have to fight to become master of the situation once more.4. Villainy:

Speaking of Richard – the only interesting character in Two Gentlemen is Evil-Gentleman Proteus. Even though he is poorly drawn, he is a scoundrel, compared with goody-goody/weak-kneed Valentine. He has no compunction against betraying his friend. He acknowledges certain irony in his actions, even the amorality of them, but that doesn’t stop him. The big difference – the reason Richard is so vibrant and fascinating and Proteus, who is actually very villainous for a character in a comedy, is so pale, is that Proteus doesn’t revel in his evil, as Richard does.

The whole time, reading, I kept having this unexplainable urge to rewrite it. I couldn’t help feeling that Shakespeare should have gone further with Evil Proteus and with the entire reversal of personality thing. I thought: If I had a chance to rewrite it, that’s what I would do, I would make Proteus more villainous, more kooky and emotionally erratic, and make Valentine more of a weakling, dreamy-for-love but unable to get his act together (and possibly more in love with Proteus) and also, like Proteus, not knowing his own heart.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Was Shakespeare Shakespeare?

There's a newish book out in Germany by a literary scholar named Kurt Kreiler who claims that Shakespeare's plays were in fact written by Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford (book on here).

It's an old theory and one which, as far as I can tell, is not taken very seriously in the English-speaking world (but it's new here). It seems doubtful to me that an aristocrat with the responsibilities that de Vere had could have turned out the sheer mass of material that Shakespeare did. Not to mention: Whoever wrote those plays understood his paying audience well, and I suspect de Vere knew more about this aristocratic fellows than he did about a general theater audience.

But more interesting to me was the elan with which some Germans jumped on the issue. That goes for Kreiler too: Why should a German, whose Literary God is officially Goethe, invest so much passion into "debunking" Shakespeare (the book is 600 pages). Many people are skeptical, of course, but the newspapers are taking it very seriously, and some, like Spiegel, are praising it as hugely important, a breakthrough. An acquaintance of mine who studied the classics at university in the forties triumphantly crowed: "Shakespeare is yesterday! Long live de Vere!"

I began to wonder if there is a cultural component to this Shakespeare/de Vere question: Maybe de Vere simply fits German assumptions about literature better than Shakespeare.

Here's my insta-theory:

Germans prefer de Vere because:

- They believe in hierarchy: Someone born or educated at the top is more likely to create great art than someone born at the bottom. There is some merit to this: Aristocrats have better education and more leisure time. But Germans in general tend to trust people more coming from within the system than people coming from without. A system they can understand and trust; all else is chaos.

- They also believe in the non-commericality of literature. Great literature, they think, cannot be commercial - money dirties art. If de Vere wrote the plays, he didn't do it for the money. He didn't need money - he did it for art. That is pure in German eyes. To write for money, as Shakespeare did, is to be hack; it's hard for Germans to accept that great art can be created for money.

Anglo-Americans prefer Shakespeare because:

- They (and especially Americans) distrust the political heirarchy and romanticize the outsider, the little guy who makes good. You can see signs of this in the Magna Charter, in the various Glorious Revolutions, in the various starts and stops of English democracy, also in the economy: Adam Smith distrusted the ability of politicians to make better decisions than the little guy - in Germany it's the opposite. Compare Smith to Marx, who distrusted the little man to do anything right and demanded that the political hierarchy make all economic decisions. The idea that a guy out of no where with no family and no class could be a super-genius appeals to the English-speaking world.

- Also, Anglo-Americans have a different relationship to money. Sure, the English aristocracy were afraid of the idea of free trade as much as the German aristocracy was, but the idea that the little guy could make good financially was, in England and especially in America, a positive thing, while in Germany it is seen with a certain amount of mistrust: The "rags to riches" story is considered a fraud and the rich are seen to have done something immoral to get where they are. For Anglo-Americans, it is positive to make money off art (no one begrudges James Cameron his millions), and art that makes money is still art. The idea of a little guy making good on the London stage and retiring a rich guy to Stratford-upon-Avon is, for us, a heroic and reassuring story. For many Germans, Shakespeare's wealth detracts from the majesty of his art.

And then, of course, there's simple patriotism in general. Even Germans accept Shakespeare as the world's Nr. 1 literary genius and see their beloved Goethe as, unfortunately, Nr. 2. So anything that cuts Shakespeare down a notch (even though the de Vere theory doesn't detract from the genius of the work) gives them a certain satisfaction.

MORE: As coincidence would have it, more just came in on this issue. Two Americans have published books on the issue. One is about the De Vere theory (including an incestuous affair with Queen Elizabeth) and the other is a history of the various theories about the "true" identity of the author of Shakespeare's plays, not just the de Vere theory. Here's the review in the New York Times.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Best Line: Richard III

My favorite line in all Richard III:

Shine out, fair sun, till I have bought a glass,
That I may see my shadow as I pass.

(Act 1, Scene 2, 269-270)

I have no idea what it means, but I love it.