It’s spiderweb season in Stonington, and our decks–with their posts, and fencing, and many corners, and other nooks and crannies–are prime web-building grounds for our spidery friends. On damp mornings, like yesterday, the water molecules cling to the webs and create some outdoor art that has a delicate beauty and also the impressive tensile strength to bear many times its weight in water.
My attitude about spiderwebs has changed since my childhood. I used to take sticks and pull them down whenever I encountered one. Reading Charlotte’s Web helped to change that attitude, and I also realized that it didn’t make much sense for someone who, from time to time over the years, has been called “Webbie” by some friends. I’ve come to understand that spiders and their webs perform a valuable service for us, in ridding our neck of the world of the annoying, buzzing housefly. And you can’t help but admire the industriousness of spiders as they build and repair their elaborate webs and then wait patiently for their prey.
On misty mornings I’ll make the rounds, taking a look to see what the spiders have been up to and admire their handiwork, like the effort above on our upper deck. Care must be taken, however, to avoid inadvertently getting a face full of webbing.
Lately I’ve been taking a break from my Shakespeare Project–I’ve been on the road, and my Yale Collected Works of Shakespeare volume is massive and not exactly travel-friendly–so I’ve been reading other things. Most recently I picked up an old paperback edition of Frank Herbert’s Dune that was on one of our shelves and have read it for the first time since my college years.
I enjoy rereading favorite books, and Dune is a good example of why. When I read it as a youth, I was pulled in by the story and read it as fast as possible, wanting to find out what happened to Paul Atreides (aka Muad’Dib) and his mother Jessica and the evil, repulsive Baron Harkonnen. Reading it again, knowing how the story ends, allows for a much more leisurely journey, appreciating the really good writing and–especially–the monumental task of creating such a fully realized world, as Herbert did with the desert planet Arrakis, its melange, its sandworms, and its Fremen.
It’s an amazing accomplishment that, perhaps, isn’t as obvious to a young reader as it becomes to someone who has read a lot over the decades. There simply aren’t that many books out there that have captured an entire previously unknown civilization–its culture, its people, its ecology, its economy, its religion, its institutions, and its politics–so completely. Most fiction builds on the foundation of our existing world and its history and doesn’t have to create a civilization from the sand up, as Herbert did. George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones books are another example of that kind of accomplishment that show just how rare such books are, and how difficult they are to create.
And writing Dune clearly took a lot of work. The back story of Herbert’s creation of Dune should encourage unappreciated writers to keep at it. According to the Dune Novels website, it took Herbert six years to research and write Dune, and the book was rejected by 23 publishers before being accepted for publication. You can imagine how dispiriting it must have been to get those rejection letters are so much time and effort. Yet, according to one ranking, at least, Dune went on to become the best-selling science fiction book of all time and continues to hold that spot, nearly 60 years after it was published. Herbert’s years of labor produced a sci-fi classic that people will be enjoying for decades to come. I wonder how the publishers who casually rejected it feel about their decisions now?
Reading is one of the most basic capabilities that humans can learn. It forms the foundation for virtually all forms of higher learning, provides a gateway into a range of knowledge as diverse as the thoughts of great minds of the past, modern technology, sports scores, and cooking recipes, and touches just about every facet of our lives. And yet, how much do we remember about how we learned this crucial skill? Learning the alphabet, associating letter combinations with different sounds until something clicked and the basic words became ingrained in brain synapses to the point where reading because easy–for me, at least, it all is lost in the mists of time that occurred before we got to the books about Dick, Jane, and their dog Spot, which I do dimly remember reading. (“See Spot run! ‘Run, Spot, run!’)
Those of us who are beyond the kids in school phase of our lives might be interested in learning that the educational community is struggling with the issue of teaching kids to read. Time magazine has an interesting article about the ongoing effort, which is precipitated by some truly dismal statistics. Even before the pandemic, in 2019, only 35 percent of fourth-graders met reading proficiency standards, and the numbers were even worse for low-income, Black, and Hispanic students. Of course, the pandemic didn’t help matters.
The current dispute is about whether reading should be taught with a focus on phonics–that is, by drilling kids on how to sound out words, with all of the weirdnesses and exceptions you find in the English language (like way/weigh)–or whether kids who are introduced to reading will eventually figure out those rules on their own. The latter school of thought considers phonics to be boring. If I could remember this phase in learning to read, I’d probably agree that it was boring–but it worked for me, and for generations of kids.
Now the troubling test scores are causing educators, and politicians, to again urge the old school, phonics approach to learning to read. It might be boring for both teacher and student, they concede, but it evidently works–and that should be the acid test. And educators really shouldn’t be worrying about whether the methods they are using are boring, in my view. Much of learning math, science, and history involves rote memorization and repetition. It’s not thrilling, but it becomes assimilated in the brain, and when you are talking about the basics, that is what you are aiming for.
It will be interesting to see how the reading debate progresses–but if our schools aren’t taking the best, most likely to succeed approach to teaching kids how to read, we are failing to achieve the most basic goal of education, and leaving those kids unprepared to succeed in the modern world. That is just not fair, or right.
After an enjoyable, travel-related respite, I am back at work on the Shakespeare Project. In part one of the Project, where I’m reading the history plays, I’ve reached Henry VI, Part I in the chronological sequence It’s a play that squarely raises one of the questions that scholars have quarreled about for centuries: which parts, if any, of that play (and, for that matter, which parts of Henry VI, Parts II and III) did Shakespeare write?
It’s weird to think that there is a dispute about what the greatest writer in the history of the English language actually wrote, but the sketchy, incomplete nature of the historical record during Elizabethan times leaves lots of room for argument. My copy of The Yale Shakespeare, which provides an introduction and scholarly notes for each play, carefully lays out the competing views. They range from the theory that Shakespeare had nothing to do with the play, to Shakespeare revising an existing play, to Shakespeare working with collaborators to come up with the play, to Shakespeare writing the entire play. That’s a ridiculously broad spectrum that covers just about every possible reality.
The authors of The Yale Shakespeare come down in favor of the theory that there was an existing play called Henry the Sixth that Shakespeare revised. Why do they reach that conclusion? They, and other Shakespearean scholars that hold a similar opinion, point to parts of the play that they deem to be “master-strokes . . . which incontestably betray the workmanship of Shakespeare” while there are other parts of the play that are of a more pedestrian style. The scholars identify several scenes that feature “bold use of transferred adjectives” and “fanciful metaphors and similes” that are considered to be a kind of Shakespearean trademark, and emphasize that such brilliant flourishes are notably absent in other scenes in the play.
In short, Shakespeare is very much given the benefit of the doubt here. The scholars can’t accept the possibility that Shakespeare may have had days where he was just doing some basic playwriting, untouched by genius, to meet a deadline, so he gets credit for the great scenes while the less compelling, unremarkable parts get attributed to some anonymous hack (and the scholars dispute who that might have been, too).
I guess if you are the greatest writer in the history of the English language, you’re entitled to some deference. I’ll be sensitive to the authorship issue as I wade into Henry VI, Part I.
Who was the greatest motivational speaker of all time? With all due respect to Knute Rockne and Matt Foley, it has to be Shakespeare’s Henry V in the play of the same name. For Henry V gives not one, but two, of the most rousing speeches in the history of the English language as he urges his men forward against the French. And Henry also shows that his eloquence can be employed in furtherance of less martial goals, too.
There is not much of a trace of the rascally, irresponsible, reckless Prince Hal of Henry IV, Parts i and II in the new king we see in Henry V. From the very first scenes, where he quizzes legal experts on Salic law and its impact on his claim to the French throne, Henry V is presented as a smart, careful, sober leader, capable of ferreting out traitors and calmly dealing with ambassadors and envoys, with nary a cup of sack about him. Indeed, his quiet and determined response to the goading and dismissive gift of tennis balls from the French Dauphin shows that he is embarrassed by his former antics and resolved to overcome them. Shakespeare further emphasizes the change in character by having Sir John Falstaff, the rogue who influenced Prince Hal when we first met him, die offstage.
Henry V is a martial play, with lots of action–more than could easily be shown on an Elizabethan stage. Shakespeare solves that dilemma by making liberal use of a narrator, who repeatedly urges the audience members to use their imaginations as the actors portray scenes in the faraway fields of France:
But his speech at the gates of Harfleur is only a hint of Harry’s full motivational gifts, shown as the English prepare for the battle of Agincourt. The English forces have taken Harfleur but are ravaged by illness and lack of food, and we see that the French forces, led by the hopelessly arrogant Dauphin, expect to inflict a crushing defeat. During the pre-dawn hours Henry disguises himself and goes among his men, to learn what his soldiers are thinking, and when they wonder at what the king might be doing, Henry responds: ““I think the king is but a man, as I am: the violet smells to him as it doth to me.” As he moves on, Henry again reflects on the weight of kingship, as his father did before him.
But when the battle nears, and his men wish they had more soldiers, Henry’s blood is up, and he rises to the occasion to deliver his greatest speech of all, which is worth reprinting in full:
Inspired by Henry’s speech, the English go on to inflict a crushing defeat on the French. The French sue for peace, and Henry must discard his martial aspect and woo the French princess, Katharine, who speaks only a little English while Henry speaks only a little French. She is suspicious–remarking that “the tongues of pen are full of deceits”–but a humble, self-deprecating, awkward Henry wins her over, steals a kiss that seals the courtship, and remarks:
As Henry and Kate prepare for marriage, he stands as the ultimate victor, knowing that their child will inherit the throne of both England and France. But when the chorus enters again, it is to let us know that the moment of triumph is fleeting indeed. When we turn next to Henry VI, hard times lay ahead for the English.
The U.S. Senate and Ohio gubernatorial races got most of the attention in Tuesday’s Ohio primary election. But the election also featured a series of levies, bond issues, and other decisions to be made by Ohio voters. And when you drill down into the results, you find something striking: libraries kicked butt.
In fact, library issues went a perfect 6-0 in the election, and all of them passed resoundingly — garnering, on average, approval votes from 71 percent of voters. In contrast, many school levies and bond issues went down to defeat.
Why do Ohioans vote overwhelmingly for libraries? A representative of the Ohio Library Council says its because Ohioans like the services they offer, and she speculates that the free COVID test kits offered at Ohio libraries during the pandemic might have played a role. I don’t know about the test kits, but I do think that the pandemic helped to drive home how important it is to have a place where you can find books to read, videos to watch, and CDs to listen to while you are social distancing. More generally, I think people like the community element of libraries. In many parts of Ohio, libraries are a source of local pride, and also one of the connections that hold communities together and allow neighbors to see each other. And library issues typically aren’t breaking the bank in terms of what they are asking.
I’m a big library supporter, and we are big-time library users. I think libraries are an important part of the fabric of this country, and I’m glad to see that my fellow Ohioans agree with that sentiment.
Many passages from Shakespeare have passed into everyday speech, often without people who use them knowing their provenance. Henry IV, Part II has one such saying that became familiar to the Webner kids when we were growing up: if we brought our neighborhood friends home for Popsicles, Twinkies, Kool-Aid, or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, after Mom distributed the goodies she would look at the throng and say, with a happy look on her face, that we were “eating her out of house and home.”
I wonder if Mom knew that she was quoting Hostess Quickly’s statement in Act II, Scene one of Henry IV, Part II (about her deadbeat tavern guest Sir John Falstaff, of course!): “He hath eaten me out of house and home.”
Henry IV, Part II is full of such good lines, embedded in a sequel’s plot that is a bit schizophrenic. Because it’s a sequel, we’ll need to find out what happens with those three significant plot threads that were left unresolved at the end of Henry IV, Part I. One thread concerns the rebellion that was a significant focus of Henry IV, Part I, another follows the antics of Falstaff, and a third explores the long-delayed maturation of Prince Hal and his complex relationship with his father, the king, and with the irresistible Falstaff. Shakespeare masterfully pulls them all together for a conclusive and somewhat bittersweet ending.
The rebellion is really a minor element of the play and is resolved in short order. Lord Northumberland decides not to participate in the fight, leaving the other rebels high and dry and causing one of them to ruefully remark: “Thus do the hopes we have in him touch ground and dash themselves to pieces.” Without Northumberland’s resources, the rebels decide to parlay with King Henry’s representative, Prince John of Lancaster, who promises to redress their grievances–only to then arrest them as traitors and send them to their deaths. After being accused of breaking his word, Prince John explains his position with a nimble and almost lawyerly bit of hair-splitting:
With the rebellion quashed neatly and without bloody battle, the play is free to concentrate on Falstaff, the King, and the struggle for Hal. Shakespeare recognized that his audience would care most about that human story, not the high-level struggles of mighty lords. As in Henry IV, Part I, Falstaff is the subject of considerable attention. When we first see him, he is being insulted by a page who dutifully reports that Falstaff’s doctor believes “he might have moe diseases than he knew for.” Falstaff’s response is vintage Falstaff:
Falstaff remains the shrewd, unethical, self-centered rogue who delights in low company. But we see still more of Sir John’s dark side as he attempts to dodge the grip of British justice in the form of the Lord Chief Justice, cheats and then charms the widowed Hostess Quickly, dallies with Doll Tearsheet, and accepts bribes from recruits who have no wish to fight the rebel forces. He also takes advantage of the aptly named Justice Shallow, a contemporary of Falstaff’s whose recollection of his role in their ne’er-do-well past has been colored and inflated by the passage of time. After Falstaff grudgingly concedes that he and Shallow “have heard the chimes at midnight,” Falstaff later remarks:
Prince Hal, after having killed Hotspur in Henry IV, Part I, seems to have backslid into his old habits, and remains deeply intrigued by Falstaff, his lifestyle, and his companions, especially Doll Tearsheet. The Prince observes that “This Doll Tearsheet should be some road” and his companion Poins responds: “I warrant you, as common as the way between Saint Albans and London.” Unable to resist the lure of Falstaff, Hal and Poins devise another ruse to trick Falstaff–as they did in Part I–this time by posing as servants while Falstaff romances Doll Tearsheet. When the unknowing Falstaff insults the Prince and Poins and the Prince and Poins reveal themselves and object to the abuse, Falstaff’s quick wit is shown again:
The King, meanwhile, has become increasingly ill, and is unable to sleep. He reflects on his condition (and not incidentally shows a lack of appreciation for the harsh and difficult lives of the English commoners), in a famous soliloquy:
The King’s condition worsens, and even the news of the capture of the rebels and the end of the rebellion cannot fully revive him. When Hal finally visits the King on his deathbed and see the crown sitting on the pillow, next to the King’s head, the Prince similarly reflects on the burdens of leadership:
Thinking that the King is dead, Hal removes the crown, places it on his head, and moves to another room to mourn. When the King awakens to find the crown is gone he thinks Hal has taken the throne before the time has come, and upbraids him:
But the misunderstanding is resolved, and the King and Hal are reconciled before the King dies. When the news that Prince Hal is to be crowned becomes known, Falstaff and Justice Shallow head to London, expecting Falstaff’s relationship to bring them a rich reward from the new monarch. But Hal has finally grown up and accepted that the duties of the King do no permit his relationship with Falstaff to continue. When Falstaff speaks to his old friend after the coronation, the new King finally and conclusively terminates their connection, but with a trace of the humor and affection that has always marked their relationship:
We’re sad to see the new King rebuke his drinking comrade but, with everything we have seen of Falstaff over two plays, we accept that he really had no choice. Falstaff was not going to change, and due regard for the role of monarch would not allow him a significant role in government. And with the entanglements with Falstaff stripped away, and his youthful indiscretions behind him, the new King–Henry V–sets his eyes upon France. The stage is therefore set for one of Shakespeare’s greatest history plays: Henry V.
The new season of Better Call Saul is out. We watched the first two episodes of the new season and realized that we had lost track of many of the plot threads in the two years since the last episode of season five of the show was aired. We’d completely forgotten, for example, that Mike put himself in harm’s way with neighborhood thugs, got beat up, and then was sent to Mexico to recuperate (and, being Mike, fix a window), and we hadn’t recalled all of the nuances of the Mesa Verde/Tucumcari call center plot line, either.
Obviously, we needed to brush up on the BCS characters, so we are going back and rewatching the fifth season to be primed with all of the information needed to enjoy the sixth (and apparently last) season. We briefly toyed with the decision of whether we needed to go back two seasons, or even longer, to fully appreciate what the heck is going on, but decided one season should be sufficient.
This is not a new phenomenon. Whether it is TV shows or books, rewatching or rereading a series has become an increasingly common requirement. It didn’t use to be that way, of course; you could watch a new season of Mission Impossible, or Seinfeld, without remembering all of the different episodes from the season before. But with the complex, continuing plotlines that we see in current TV drama and books, rewatching and rereading has become essential, and you wonder if the creators and authors plan it that way. And of course, the very act of rewatching or rereading, knowing what is coming later, gives a different perspective on the characters and their activities. (Rewatching Better Call Saul, for example, makes me continuously shake my head in wonderment at how the savvy, hyper-cautious Gus and Mike ever got taken in by “Heisenberg” in the first place–or, more accurately, in the post-Better Call Saul world to come.)
The Mother of all rereadings will come if George R.R. Martin ever finishes the final two books in the Game of Thrones series. If that happens, I’ll probably have to go back to the first book and reread the whole series, just to make sure I’m fully up to speed on everything that is happening in Dorne or the Iron Islands or with the reanimated Lady Stoneheart. But I’m guessing I will enjoy every minute.
I’m pretty sure that Henry IV, Part I is the first Shakespeare play I read from cover to cover. Mr. Will, the enthusiastic teacher who presided over our Shakespeare Seminar class at Upper Arlington High School, wisely picked it to be the first play we read in that course. I suspect he knew that the insult humor and abusive banter between Prince Hal and Sir John Falstaff would appeal to the simple minds of teenaged boys—and it did.
For a time the lads of Shakespeare Seminar reveled in calling each other “whoreson knaves” and “vile standing tucks” and “fat kidneyed rascals.” We loved Falstaff and Hal just as patrons of the Globe Theater did in Shakespeare’s time, and as did English audiences for years thereafter–which is why Falstaff is generally regarded as the single most popular character ever to emerge from the Bard of Avon’s prolific pen. Thus introduced to the humor and “bawdy” side of Shakespeare, we high schoolers were willing to put up with romance, and tragedy, and Hamlet’s angst as we went on to read other plays.
Of course, age brings a different perspective. As I read Henry IV, Part I now, I still enjoy the sallies between Hal and Falstaff at Eastcheap taverns (although I realize, given the changed eddies and currents of slang that have occurred in the centuries since, that I will never understand or appreciate the humor as an Elizabethan audience did)–but I see a lot more in Falstaff than I did nearly 50 years ago.
Shakespeare’s construction of the play may be a sly exercise in misdirection. He explicitly raises the contrast between the wastrel Prince Hal and the rebellious Harry Hotspur in the very first scene, as Henry IV laments how his ne’er-do-well, tavern-haunting son measures up against the victorious warrior Hotspur:
But this contrast proves to be a bit of a false lead. To be sure, we see the irresponsible Hal at the outset, but ultimately Hal is not so different from Hotspur. Hal rallies to his father’s side, fights to defeat the rebellion, and ultimately kills Hotspur in the climactic battle that brings the play to a close. No, the real contrast is between Hotspur and Falstaff–and not simply because Hotspur is a hothead and Falstaff is perfectly content in playing the clown. Hotspur is unable to curb his own vanity and sense of honor, and it ends up costing him dearly, both in causing him to rebuff the King and bring on the conflict and in needlessly insulting Owen Glendower and losing a much-needed ally. Hotspur’s pride and self-regard prevent him from looking out for his own best interests. Falstaff, on the other hand, is able to swallow jibes and ridicule in the service of his ultimate goal of wine, women, and survival–which means maintaining his relationship with Prince Hal at all costs.
Falstaff’s character leaves a lot of room for interpretation by a skilled actor. He could be played as a buffoon, to be sure, but there is a certain genius in him, and a conniving nature, with ugliness and deviousness lurking just below the surface. He’s not harmless. For all of his surface jolliness, Falstaff is not above robbing innocent travelers, or trying to cheat an honest hostess out of what he owes–but he does it with a roguish charm and shrewdness. A classic example of Falstaff’s quick wit comes when he learns that Prince Hal and Poins set him up to take the money Falstaff had stolen from travelers and are well aware that he has been lying about facing an ever-growing number of brigands. Falstaff abruptly pivots to a different approach, claiming that he was well aware that it was Hal who pilfered the booty:
Falstaff and Prince Hal then act out a scene where Hal returns to talk to his father the king, with Falstaff initially playing Henry IV before he and the prince switch roles, so that Falstaff plays Hal and Hal the king. After Hal, as the king, describes Falstaff as the devil who has led Hal astray, Falstaff, as Hal, rises to his own defense:
Prince Hal’s chilling response–“I do, I will”–presages the coming pivot in their relationship.
What did Shakespeare think of Falstaff? For all of the Bard’s ability to portray the heights of British pride and patriotism, his treatment of Falstaff shows he well understood the underside of war and the cost of valor. Falstaff recruits a ragged band of soldiers, most of whom don’t survive the final battle. After presenting Hotspur as relentlessly driven by pursuit of “honor,” Shakespeare has Falstaff, in the king’s camp before the battle, give his jaded view of the concept of “honor”:
Is cowardice defensible? Of course, Shakespeare doesn’t say so–but Hotspur dies while Falstaff lives, and indeed goes on to claim that it was he, and not Prince Hal, who finally killed Hotspur, in hopes of gaining a rich reward. But while Falstaff lives on, his special relationship with Hal has not survived. The prince has become a prince and, as the play ends, he looks forward to a further, final battle that will help to quash the rebellion.
Today Kish and I celebrate our 40th anniversary. On April 3, 1982, amidst a brisk wind and snow flurries on a wintry spring day in Vermilion, Ohio, we were married, and we have enjoyed 40 happy and wonderful years together since then.
40 is an interesting number. It’s one of digits mentioned most frequently in the Bible–more than 100 times, in fact, and often in connection with highly significant events and Biblical figures. Moses lived in the desert for 40 years, and was on Mount Sinai for 40 days and 40 nights. The Israelites wandered in the wilderness for 40 years. The great flood that floated Noah’s ark occurred because it rained for 40 days and 40 nights. Jesus fasted in the desert for 40 days and 40 nights. In all of these Biblical references, 40 seems to be a handy number to capture the concept of a long period of time to deal with a trial or test. I’m happy to report that our 40 years together haven’t had that evident Biblical connotation.
40 is noteworthy for other reasons. “Forty” is said to be the only number in the English language whose letters are in alphabetical order. The standard human pregnancy is 40 weeks long, and the standard nap supposedly gives you “40 winks.” There are 40 spaces on a Monopoly board. And U.S. 40, a highway that runs through Columbus, is right up there with Route 66 as a legendary American roadway and is known as “America’s Main Street.”
All in all, you’d have to conclude that 40 is a pretty good number as numbers go, and one well worth celebrating as our journey continues to number 41 and beyond.
I’ve finished Richard II, the first step in my Shakespeare Project, in which I aim to read all of the Bard of Avon’s plays, sonnets, and poems. The Tragedy of King Richard the Second was the fifth of Shakespeare’s history plays and was written in or before 1597, as he was rising to prominence in the London theater scene. The play also is the first of a series of historical plays, written by Shakespeare at different times, that tell the turbulent story of British kings and can be read in historical chronological order from Richard II, through Henry IV, V, and VI, to Richard III. That’s why I’ve chosen Richard II as my starting point.
I had not read Richard II or seen it performed before. It’s an interesting and emotionally compelling play that shows why Shakespeare was becoming the master of the British stage, both in terms of its dramatic structure and its otherworldly writing. The play begins with scenes showing a haughty and greedy King Richard acting with absolute authority as he banishes Henry Bullingbroke in the wake of his dispute with another British nobleman. But Richard was feared to be running England into bankruptcy and ruin, and when the king rashly decides to go to Ireland at a time when Bullingbroke’s father dies and Bullingbroke returns to England to claim his inheritance, the British gentry rally to Bullingbroke’s cause. When Richard returns from his Irish adventure–one which left him seasick as well as devoid of significant support back in England–he learns that he has effectively lost the monarchy and is forced to abdicate, imprisoned, and eventually murdered.
During the course of these events, Richard starts as a money-grubbing and ungrateful tyrant, but ends as a sympathetic (and indeed, pathetic) character. As Richard laments his unhappy fate, we learn that there is more to his character–including the fact that he loves his queen, and she loves him–than we initially understood. Eventually Richard seems to discover the graciousness of spirit and understanding that would have helped him to be a better king when he wielded absolute power . . . but of course it is too late.
And Richard is not the only character of interest in the play. Henry Bullingbroke, who eventually is crowned Henry IV, is presented ambiguously, leaving the actor playing the great latitude to interpret the character. Bullingbroke could be presented as a schemer with designs on the crown from the outset, as a loyal subject who is wronged by the banishment and returns upon his father’s death to be buffeted by events beyond his control to the throne, or as something in between. While Richard’s character stands center state and is sketched in great detail, Bullingbroke is kept in the shadows, and shaded. One of Bullingbroke’s few human moments comes when he seeks to advise his son of events and instructs his aides to look in London taverns for the young man–presaging the plot of Henry IV, Part I, the next play in the chronology that is dominated by the antics of Prince Hal and his foil, Falstaff.
There are lots of passages in the play that attest to Shakespeare’s genius. One favorite for me is this familiar passage about England:
This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle, This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars, This other Eden, demi-paradise, This fortress built by Nature for herself Against infection and the hand of war, This happy breed of men, this little world, This precious stone set in the silver sea, Which serves it in the office of a wall Or as a moat defensive to a house, Against the envy of less happier lands, This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.
What’s interesting is that this beautiful, ringing language is not spoken by a proud and boastful man, but instead by the sad, dying John of Gaunt (Bullingbroke’s father) who laments that, thanks to Richard’s unwise and profligate spending, Gaunt’s “dear, dear land” is “now leas’d out–I die pronouncing it–like to a tenement or a pelting farm.” The plot could have been served by a much simpler statement by Gaunt, but part of Shakespeare’s unique brilliance is his ability to convert a passage conveying a basic plot development and turn it into the stuff of art and legend, forever to be known as some of the greatest words ever written about England. How long, I wonder, did it take Shakespeare to write that passage, and did he labor to construct it, or did the words simply flow from his pen?
The same effort to reach for poetic heights rather than settling for easier wording is shown throughout the play, and even in the more explanatory, context-setting, and transitional scenes. A good example comes at the end of a scene where two of the King’s few remaining supporters are discussing the Duke of York, who is charging with maintaining the order in the face of popular unrest while the king is in Ireland. One of the characters says: “Alas, poor duke! The task as he undertakes is numb’ring sands and drinking oceans dry. Where one on his side fights, thousands will fly.”
Another favorite scene occurs when the despondent Queen learns that Richard has been deposed by overhearing a gardener talk to a servant. In Shakespeare’s hands, the garden becomes a metaphor for England itself, and the gardener ruefully recognizes that Richard has missed his chance:
Years ago I bought the Yale Shakespeare from Barnes & Noble, back in the days when people actually went to bookstores. Published in 1993, the book is a colossal, oversized, 1517-page, agate-typed tome that features every play, poem, and sonnet penned by the Bard (in whole or in part, with acknowledgement of disputed provenance), along with historical notes, footnotes, and short biography.
For years, I’ve been intending to read the book from beginning to end, but I’ve never quite gotten around to doing it. Now, armed with new glasses to help with the tiny typeface, equipped with a bright, well-lighted spot that is well-suited to careful reading, and bringing to bear the experience of additional years and some post-pandemic perspective, I’m ready to launch my own personal Shakespeare Project.
The Yale Shakespeare organizes the Bard’s awesome output into sections on “The Comedies,” “The Histories,” and “The Tragedies and the Poems.” Being a history buff, I’m going to start with “The Histories,” and read them in their historical sequence, rather than in the order in which Shakespearean scholars think they were written. I’ll start with Richard II and follow the story of British monarchs through to Henry VI, Part III, and then tackle King John and Henry VIII, which are basically standalone pieces, at the end. When I’m done with the histories I’ll decide whether to turn next to the comedies or the tragedies and the poems.
I’ll report on my progress and reactions as I go. Some of the plays will be familiar, from reading them in classes or seeing them performed, but most will be new to me. And I know very little about the sonnets and poems, so reading them will be a voyage of discovery, too.
2022 is not only our fresh new year, it’s also the year in which the 1973 sci-fi thriller Soylent Green was set. Soylent Green envisioned a truly awful 2022: the world was grossly overpopulated, mass starvation provoked regular food riots until the masses received their “soylent” food rations, the environment had been ruined by pollution, and people were at the mercy of a cold-blooded authoritarian police state. The movie allowed Charlton Heston to exercise some of his legendary scenery-chewing acting instincts, including the classic final scene where Heston shouts to the world: “Soylent green is people! It’s people!”
In short, Soylent Green sets a very low bar for our 2022. This year might not be great, but at least it’s unlikely that we’ll be eating each other.
We’re living through a lot of the years in which bleak sci-fi movies and stories were set–Blade Runner, for example, was set in 2019–and the future hasn’t turned out to be as grim as the writers envisioned. There’s always been a pretty strong tradition of horrific futures in science fiction, as writers took whatever seemed to be the problems of the day, multiplied them, and extrapolated them forward into terrible future worlds that were dark, overcrowded, starving, wrecked, merciless, and governed by fascists. (If that tradition holds true, current sci fi writers may well be envisioning distant futures where epidemics rage.)
Of course, most of those visions turned our to be wrong. We haven’t experienced a nuclear holocaust, been terrorized by killer artificial intelligence or intelligent apes, seen our oceans turned to sewage, or experienced planet-wide starvation and horrific plagues. Sci-fi writers of the ’60s and ’70s would no doubt be stunned to learn that one of the biggest health problems in our real world of 2022 isn’t starvation–it’s obesity!
One of the best things about our German Village neighborhood is our nearby bookstore, the Book Loft of German Village. It’s just about the perfect bookstore: a multi-floor maze of 32 rooms of books, jigsaw puzzles, calendars, book bags, posters, book-themed refrigerator magnets, and pretty much anything else you would hope to find in a bookstore. It’s got a wide selection of books and the kind of rambling organization that makes a bookstore comfortable, and great. With an odd chair here and there, you can plop down and give a potential purchase some careful study before you commit.
It’s a tradition for me to hit the Loft for some Christmas shopping every holiday season. It’s always a fun visit that yields some impulse purchases, too.
Last night I watched the George C. Scott version of A Christmas Carol. It has become a holiday tradition of sorts for me: every Christmas season I try to watch at least one of the film versions of Charles Dickens’ classic story of a mean, miserly skinflint who is haunted by the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future on Christmas Eve. All of the films present creditable versions of the story, but I particularly like the George C. Scott version because he is so believable as the initially heartless, but ultimately redeemed, Ebenezer Scrooge and because it adopts, verbatim, many of the lines penned by Dickens .