February 23, 2010

Shakespeare Untold

The other week in class, a professor had us do an interesting exercise. He had us actually re-write Shakespeare’s sonnets in sentence form. The goal was to understand what words in the sonnet were important and how pervasive certain imagery was. We then went around the room and each read our sentences aloud, which was another interesting exercise in what we all found in the poetry.

This reduction of some of the greatest poetry ever written to its skeletal basics is perhaps some of the most worthwhile work I’ve done on the sonnets. And, of course, I can’t help but notice that it can be used to great comedic effect. When you get down to it, past the snobbery, past the intellectual mumbo jumbo, past the deification of Sweet William, these poems are love poems. Love poems, while beautiful if well written, innately contain certain tropes. When lain bare and seen as their very essence, these tropes are hilarious.

So I decided to break a few of the sonnets down for you here. I’m including the full text of the sonnet (divided by quatrain then final couplet), my sentences (again divided by quatrain then final couple so each sonnet will be four sentences), and a brief analysis which I hope will amuse you as much as it amuses me. Enjoy!

Sonnet 18

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date:

Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed,
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature's changing course untrimmed:

But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow'st,
Nor shall death brag thou wander'st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow'st,

So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

You’re prettier and more mild than a summer’s day. The sun is sometimes too hot and often clouded, and perfection always fades with time. But time will not ravage you and you will not die. So long as man has lungs to breathe and eyes to see, this will survive and grant you life.

God, what woman was he thinking of? Mild and temperate? Not mercurial or cloudy? One thing I know about women (and I’m an expert because I am one) is that we are beings of extremes and would more often say “nothing is wrong” when something is than let our sun shine unclouded. I guess this is just further proof that Shakepseare was gay…

Sonnet 71

No longer mourn for me when I am dead
Than you shall hear the surly sullen bell
Give warning to the world that I am fled
From this vile world with vilest worms to dwell:

Nay, if you read this line, remember not
The hand that writ it, for I love you so,
That I in your sweet thoughts would be forgot,
If thinking on me then should make you woe.

O! if, I say, you look upon this verse,
When I perhaps compounded am with clay,
Do not so much as my poor name rehearse;
But let your love even with my life decay;

Lest the wise world should look into your moan,
And mock you with me after I am gone.

When the church bells ring for my death and I am buried in the ground do not mourn me. I love you so much that I don’t want you to be grieved. If you read this after I’m gone, just let your love for me decay like my corpse. Otherwise, the world may play tricks on you with your memory of me.

I love this sonnet because it reeks of teenage emo poetry. It’s like what a suicidal Jewish Grandmother would write if she wore black eyeliner and fishnet stockings, “No no, my love, don’t be sad, just don’t think about me. I will die and decay in the ground and worms will eat my flesh, but just move on.”

Sonnet 116

Let me not to the marriage of true minds

Admit impediments. Love is not love

Which alters when it alteration finds,

Or bends with the remover to remove:

O, no! it is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;

It is the star to every wandering bark,

Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken.

Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks

Within his bending sickle's compass come;

Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,

But bears it out even to the edge of doom.

If this be error and upon me proved,

I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

Do not allow me to impede a marriage which should occur; Love cannot be true love if you are looking to change each other. No, it is ever-constant and like the North star: immeasurably necessary to a wandering soul. Love does not fade with time. If I’m wrong, I never wrote anything and nobody has ever loved ever.

This definitely falls into the Jewish Grandma category again. “If it’s true love, don’t let me stand in your way…. Oh by the way, here’s what true love is.” My favorite part about this poem is how many weddings it’s been read at… just because it has the word “marriage” in it does not make it a good idea to read at your wedding. Actually, knowing Shakespeare, it’s probably a very bad idea. It’s like the often-misquoted portion of Hamlet, “To thine own self be true”. Yes, he said it, but ironically. Please refer to my post on John Adams and the MacB’s for my opinion on the random quoting of Shakespeare. If you’re not ONE HUNDRED PERCENT CERTAIN of what it maybe kinda means, just don’t do it.

Sonnet 130

My Mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more read, than her lips red:
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.

I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.

I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound:
I grand I never saw a goddess go,
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:

And yet by heaven, I think my love as rare,
As any she belied with false compare.

My love doesn’t look at all like what the poets say is perfect. She’s also got horrendous breathe. Her voice isn’t lovely though she speaks well and she’s kinda chunky too. However, I think she is as special as any that the other poets praise so highly.

Shakespeare, while I applaud your attack on the courtly love poem, all I can say is this: You’re sleeping on the couch for the next century.

February 18, 2010

The More you Know...

One of the many things about myself which sometimes skirts the line of pertinence to my work as a scholar is my sense of humor. I think it is of utter importance to have a good sense of humor, and moreover for an academic to be able to laugh at herself and her work. If she cannot do this, how can she have any degree of fun with it?

That being said, I have a horribly, wonderfully wicked and hideously dirty sense of humor. It is difficult to have studied Shakespeare for so long and not. I repeatedly say to my students “you haven’t studied Shakespeare until you’ve studied it with a dirty old man”. I’ve been fortunate enough to have had several dirty old men in my life who also happened to be brilliant scholars, actors and mentors. As a result, my mind is a twisted place more often in the gutter than anywhere else. I try to take an Oscar Wilde approach to this (“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars” (Lady Windermere’s Fan, Lord Darlington, Act III) ) and also attempt (sometimes in vain) to keep this aspect of myself out of the classroom. It is hardly appropriate in polite company, and certainly can get a girl in trouble.

That being said, what can I do with myself when presented with readings from John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester? Really, there is nothing subversive or discrete about the blatant sexuality and bawdy humor of this man’s writing and thereby I chose to wallow in it rather than turn a blind eye. You have been warned, this post will contain suitably lewd language and humor (sorry, mom).

For those not in the historical know, the Earl of Rochester (portrayed by Johnny Depp in the 2004 movie the Libertine was perhaps the most fleshly and venereal gentleman in English history. Born April 1 1647, he died at the age of thirty-three due to any number of venereal diseases (gonorrhea and syphilis being the most popular theorized causes of his demise). While alive, he wrote and was actually fairly handy with verse. One of his largest mistakes is a poem lacking a title but often referred to as “Satyr” or “A Satyr on Charles II” which proclaimed that King Charles II was as impotent a King as he was a sexual partner. The poem was accidentally delivered to the King himself, causing the Earl to flee court and be unable to return.

But what really caught my eye in Rochester’s readings was a little ditty entitled “Signor Dildo”. Written in late 1673, the poem enumerates all the wonderful qualities of “A Noble Italian call’d Signior Dildo” (4).

You, like me, may be aghast that the word “dildo” was in use in 1673. A little internet digging reveals that the first dildo actually dates from much earlier. Uncovered in a German Cave in 2005, archeologists seem to have found a stone-age dildo which is about 28,000 years old. According to this article, the scholars seem hesitant to actually label the smoothly polished stone as an Ice Age sex toy, though those of a more liberal persuasion take my attitude of “clearly, it’s a large penis”. …interestingly enough, it was also used to knap flints. Talk about a multi-tool.

But that does not explain where the word came from. A jaunt into the OED actually defines “dildo” as “A word of obscure origin, used in the refrains of ballads” and in much smaller type underneath says “…Also, a name of the penis or phallus, or a figure thereof; spec. an artificial penis used for female gratification” (first used by Thomas Nashe circa 1593 in his poem “The Choise of Vanentines or the Merie Ballad of Nash his Dildo" see lines 261 and 237) It seems to me like ye olde sweater-vest-wearing, glasses-polishing, library-card-toting scholars may have a little shame about this word. The fact that “obscure origin” comes in the definition of the word before “penis” seems strange to me. Like the wordies are trying to hide the facts. Like they are saying to us “oh, well, if you must know…” I mean clearly if I am looking the word “dildo” up in the OED I have some inkling of scholarly persuasion and interest in the topic, what is there to hide?

In case you haven’t clicked on the above link and actually read Rochester’s poem, I would highly recommend it just for kicks and grins. I have never seriously considered how many words rhyme with “dildo” and I’m certain our beloved Earl didn’t even cover all of them. The poem, written in rhyming couplets (and actually in slightly strained heroic couplets at that unless my scansion is off), is actually and honestly a delightful little piece of debauchery. At some point I will have to analyze it further, but right now I am content to bask in the glow of its divine dirtiness. My favorite bit, lines 74-78, is just so wonderfully packed with imagery that it simply must be shared, “This Signior is sound, safe, ready, and Dumb,/As ever was Candle, Carret, or Thumb:/Then away with these nasty devices, and Show/How you rate the just merits of Signior Dildo.” Candle? Carrot? Really? I don’t know whether to be shocked, appalled or amused. I think I’m a little of all of the above.

…incidentally same jaunt into the OED revealed two items which my inner middle schooler is still giggling about. Apparently there exists a “dildo-glass” which is a “cylindrical glass test tube”. There also exists a “dildo-tree, dildo-bush, dildo pear tree” which is “a tree or shrub of the genus Ceresus family Cactaceae”. Apologies, but google searches to find a picture of the illusive dildo tree only yield smut. I do not recommend entering those search terms into any search engine. Searching by scientific name proved equally fruitless as the species of cactus was not given (only genus and family, that amounts to a lot of cacti). Though personally, the thought of any cactus being called a “dildo tree” just gives me the shudders.

If you are still reading and I have not offended your finer sensibilities, I wish you a good day filled with raunchy poetry and protection from dildo trees and syphilis.

February 15, 2010

Knights in Shining Armor

February 15, 2010

While my focus has shifted to the scholarly of late, I also (on occasion) do things unrelated to books or dead poets. This past weekend, I was treated to dinner at Medieval Times and my sensibilities as an actor, performer and scholar of things related to Knights and Kings were suitably offended.

Don’t get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoyed watching the pretty horses, the pretty knights on the pretty horses, the pretty weapons that the knights wielded while riding the pretty horses…. What I did not enjoy was the caliber of performer able to secure a job at this establishment.

Some of the knights were amazing. Some of these fights were truly slamming, the pace was good and I actually bought that the combatants had the intention of hurting each other. However some fights were just painful to watch. They were all well choreographed, but said less-than-stellar fights had cues you could drive a truck through. As a trained stage combatant and member of the SAFD, I understand the need for safe fighting. Hell, I wouldn’t want someone swinging a Morningstar at my head unless I was absolutely certain he knew what he was doing. It was obvious, to me at least, that these performers (I hesitate to say ‘actors’) simply did not have the fight training to be fighting the way they were.

In addition to less-than-stellar fights, the performance itself was spotty at best. I definitely did not go expecting highly trained proficient actors en par with Ian McKellon, but I did expect to at least understand what the people were saying. Due to some serious annunciation problems, I only really got about two words which came out of the Princess’ mouth. Granted, she was wearing a headset mic and speaking on one of those is a skill in itself, but when I think about all the talented actors in the New York area who could be paid to play her part, I wonder at the casting decisions this organization makes. The guy who played the Prince was pretty to look at and could certainly ride a horse, but that was about it. I think the gamer term for this guy is “meat shield”. It’s no small wonder he was captured and held hostage for so long, his idea of emotion pretty much amounted to “No. Stop. Please. Don’t.” The show went more smoothly and was more entertaining when he was where he belonged: offstage.

That being said, I did have fun. Yes, you have to eat with your hands. Yes, the evil knight kicks hardcore booty. Yes, our serving wench was seriously awesome. And yes, they serve daiquiris the size of your head. I am not joking. Perhaps the best part of the experience was being encouraged to cheer for the knight whose section you were randomly assigned to sit in. At first, the audience was shy about this but as the night progressed the cheering became louder and louder. I believe that I have already expressed my heartfelt love for interactive theatre, and this certainly fell into that category. It was utterly exhilarating to be sitting amongst a group of people who fed off each others’ energies and poured it out to the performers. I can only imagine what it must have been like to be one of those performers. Our knight certainly seemed to enjoy the support. A true showman, he worked the crowd every chance he got and we loved him for it. I mean really, how can you not love a guy in tights who encourages you to do the wave as he rides by on his horse?

Overall I would recommend the experience if you can get a good deal on the tickets. Do not pay sixty bucks to go see this, but do get a group of friends together and pay thirty bucks to go. It is well worth the (discounted) cost.

February 9, 2010

Fiddy Cent

I love many things in life: chocolate, tea, the smell of a library, new pens, shopping, backrubs…; but I would say one of the major love affairs I have ever entered into has been with the English language. Plainly spoken I love words. They have always understood me, I have always had a knack with them, and they never call at 3 AM the day before a big test and leave passive-aggressive “we need to talk” messages on my voicemail.

The use of so-called “fifty cent words” is something I highly endorse, both in writing and in speech. Vocabulary is meant to be expanded, and the richer one’s vocabulary the better one is able to express herself. There are few things more exciting than coming across a new word and integrating it into you speech. Seriously, try it out. In the next few days slip in a word like “effulgent”, “lurdan”, or “percolating”. And take a minute to check out this website, a new find of mine which frankly I could spend hours browsing.

However. There is a limit. There is a point when it gets to be too much. If I have to sit with a dictionary in my lap to get through the first two pages of your essay, we have a problem on our hands. I just finished reading the introduction to Shakespeare’s Perjured Eye (the invention of poetic subjectivity in the Sonnets) by Joel Fineman and my goodness, man, could you get more convoluted? Seriously, do any of you know what “epideictic” or “encomium” means off the top of your head? There were even a few words I had to turn to several dictionaries to find (“intromissive” and “extromissive”). The OED finally gave me the answer: “have the quality or effect of intromitting or letting in (e.g. rays of light); connected with intromission” though they broke the cardinal rule of definition (do not use the word to define itself), but that’s another rant.

Now granted, I understand that his argument is based in language and convoluted language at that. He is speaking on some of the most famous treasure-troves of the English language, and these poems are rather old to say the least. Of course his style should be heightened, if not it would do a disservice to the poetry he is so carefully analyzing. However the extensive use of such ridiculously complicated prose is a disservice to the reader. Yes, this is a niche book which will only be read by scholars, but that does not mean it should be dressed in language so convoluted that only someone with such a strong desire to read it as to look up every unavailable reference in an unconnected reference book should be able to take in its message.

I suppose the heart of my frustration with this is the quality of writing in academia. Language is important and should suit the purpose with which the author took up pen, but just because you’re writing a book on a highfalutin’ topic does not mean you should be incomprehensible. Eventually it all just turns into a conglomeration of syllables anyway, why not make it easy to digest? It clarifies meaning, it makes people more inclined to stick with your argument, and it makes you look like less of a self-important prig.

…apologies to the late Dr. Fineman, I do find his argument engaging and interesting, I just wish he had said it with more clarity and less ostentation. Peacocks don’t need to adorn their tails, all they have to do is strut.

February 2, 2010

"But if the while I think on thee, dear friend, all losses are returned and sorrows end."

Have you ever returned to a favorite author after a long foray into other literature? Picked up a favorite book after having left it gathering dust on the shelf for far too long?

It’s like running into a dear old friend on the subway. Someone you knew would always be in your life but things had gotten too busy to call contact this person for whatever reason. There is a relief in seeing someone like that, a comfort in knowing that all is right in the world. Conversation with them brings easy familiarity and you wonder why it is you ever let your job get in the way of you seeing this person. Picking things up again is simple, like you never left them, because in your heart you never did.

I got to read and analyze Sonnet 18 this week for a class and felt the same way. There was something so very comforting in seeing those words in print and knowing I would be held accountable for them. Being introduced to all this wonderful (and not so wonderful) literature is important for me as a person and a scholar, but Sweet William (Shakespeare not Faulkner) will always be my home. I can do Shakespeare, Bakhtin is another story.

There are several sonnets that, over the course of the years, I have committed to memory. Sonnet 18 happens to be one of them (I mean really, how can I call myself a “Shakespeare scholar” and not be able to rattle off “Shall I compare thee to a summers’ day?...”). I have found that knowing them does not prevent me from making further discoveries within them. In fact, quite the opposite. Because I do know them so well I am more free to stretch the language, discover more, read deeper.

And boy let me tell you what this reading drudged up.

This Spring I will be speaking at several conferences, one of them the New Jersey Writers’ Alliance in a panel headed by Dr. Nira Gupta-Casale on Vampires and Zombies. My essay is a product of my obsessive love for a man dead 500 years (Shakespeare guys, not Lestat) combined with a genre that has led to one too many of my personal teenaged fantasies. Meld these together and you get my paper entitled Staking them Out: Shakespeare’s Vampires.

I can almost hear the critics groaning, but hey, the paper’s already been accepted to one conference and I have another hot on its tail. Yes, I do find founding and reason for the paper beyond “tee hee tee hee let’s see what I can dress up in academic mumbo-jumbo and sell to a conference!” I am slightly loathe to publish “inside scoop” on the paper before it’s been formally presented or published (this is the internet after all, and IP rights are sketchy at best especially among academics). However, suffice to say that this new lens brought a more than interesting reading to sonnets 18 and, more importantly, 19.

For your reading pleasure, take a look and see if you can’t see at least a tidbit of what I see:

Sonnet 18

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And Summer’s lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature’s changing course, untrimmed:
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,
Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st:
So long as men can breath or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Sonnet 19

Devouring time, blunt thou the lion’s paws,
And make the earth devour her own sweet brood;
Pluck the keen teeth from the fierce tiger’s jaws,
And burn the long-lived Phoenix in her blood;
Make glad and sorry seasons as thou fleet’st,
And do whate’er thou wilt, swift-footed time,
To the wide world and all her fading sweets:
But I forbid thee one most heinous crime,
O carve not with thy hours my love’s fair brow,
Nor draw no lines there with thine antique pen;
Him in thy course untainted do allow
For beauty’s pattern to succeeding men.
Yet do they worst, old Time, despite thy wrong,
My love shall in my verse ever live young.

…far from vampires that sparkle in the sunlight, huh?

February 1, 2010

Practically Paradise

So I’m officially a week into the semester and I still haven’t re-cracked good William (Faulkner not Shakespeare). He sits on my desk and mocks me occasionally, but then I realized that I could just cover him up with a pile of other work. He’s been smothered in political pamphlets from the Revolutionary era ever since and occasionally I put my keys on top as a paperweight in case he gets any ideas about wriggling out from under. With the semester underway, reading Faulkner is the last thing on my list.

I did read Utopia this week (which is also on my list). Okay, I’ll admit it, it was for a class, but it still counts, right? Just because I’m reading of a syllabus doesn’t make it any less literary.

On dear Sir Thomas’ 1516 foray into a perfect society I have surprisingly little to say. The natural question that springs to mind whenever one picks up a work entitled “Paradise” (be it Dante or More) is how Utopian is Utopia? Naturally, I have little inclination to talk about this (though I’m certain we’ll be discussing it in class on Wednesday and I may or may not have an update after that as per how that discussion goes).

Oh, in case you were interested, Thomas More actually coined the word “Utopia” (OED). A small foray into our favorite encyclopedic volume of words tells us that in 1613 it came into wider use to mean “a place, state, or condition ideally perfect in respect of politics, laws, customs, and conditions”. It has been used steadily in that capacity ever since, but most people aren’t aware that they are referring to More’s pamphlet whenever they speak of ideality.

What I am intrigued by is the fact that More basically describes a communist state. Every place looks exactly the same, every person works the same amount of hours, every person receives what he requires. As More explains it, “…and seeing they be all thereof partners equally, therefore, can no man there be poor or needy” (148). I suppose what really struck me about this idea is how very ancient it is. Communist states were already being discussed as an ideal in 1516 England and have been pervasive throughout the minds of men since. I’m no historian, and certainly not a political historian, but this seems a very long time for such an idea to percolate. And nobody yet has gotten it right… the “communist” states of today are not More’s Utopia and never will be, when did the idea become sullied?

Now granted, More’s Utopia is not an enactable policy. Here is a country with wealth in store because they (as a society) hold no store in traditional signs of wealth. Here is a country whose foreign relations depend entirely upon the foreign countries thinking the Utopians curious and quaint. Here is a country where lawyers are banished (as deceivers, much like actors were in the days of yore). This is not reality, nor can it be. But I am dubious at best to say that there is nothing to be learned from Utopia.

Another thing Utopia does not account for is the nature of mankind. Utopia would like to believe the best of man, or at least that nurture will win over nature. I’m not entirely convinced that it will. However, given no evidence to back my claim, I wish to avoid delving further into the land of speculation. Suffice to say that I have a fairly pessimistic view of human nature, that way I can only be surprised not disappointed. For Utopia to hold, man as a society must behave as creatures of innate good.

But why bother discussing unattainable perfection at all? What is so fascinating about pretty things that we can’t have? I suppose the answer is that they are still pretty, whether real or not. Even if we can’t have it, we can still want it, and we can still wonder how to get it.

Works Cited

More, Thomas R. Utopia. Ralph Robynson Translation 1556. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 1999. Print.

"Utopia" The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989. OED Online. Oxford University Press. 4 Apr. 2000 .