Living with Shakespeare: Actors, Directors, and Writers on Shakespeare in Our Time - Susannah Carson

Living With Shakespeare is a collection of essays by various folk, ranging from academics and authors to actors and directors, and even a scientist, about their relationship with WS. As you would expect, some were very interesting; others, not. Most fell between those two extremes. What follows is not a review per se but rather a collection of thoughts and impressions I jotted down as I finished reading each piece. It’s fascinating what people discover when they tangle with the Bard.

“Foreword,” Harold Bloom – Lord, I loathe Bloom! And sentences like this only confirm my dislike: “At their strongest, as in Iago, Shakespeare’s grand negations are figures in a negative poetics which is a kind of dramatic negative theology” (p. x). Fortunately, only a couple of the essays that follow read like this so don’t be daunted.

“A Little Monkey Business,” Bill Willingham – Rather tiresome essay about the over-flogged horse that the reader/audience is a collaborator with the author. Not badly written, but it doesn’t offer much in the way of interest or insight. [I have read several of Willingham’s Fables volumes and enjoyed them.]

“Speaking Shakespeare,” Sir Antony Sher – My note here says “Most interesting and insightful so far,” which seems a bit silly now considering it’s only the second essay in the volume. However, as it turned out, it did remain one of the more interesting and insightful entries. I’m finding that the best critiques of WS are coming from people who actually work with the texts – actors, authors, directors, etc. – as opposed to the strictly academic writers. In that spirit, I would recommend the following: Shakespeare, Mark van Doren; Women of Will, Tina Packer; Reading Shakespeare's Sonnets, Don Paterson.

“Teaching Shakespeare to Actors,” Camille Paglia – She’s still alive? I didn’t like her back in the ‘80s when she was often in the news and I still don’t. If I’m reading this essay correctly, she’s saying that American troupes staging Shakespeare should stick to traditional forms because American audiences have a hard enough time understanding that much less anything remotely experimental. Aaaagh! Fortunately, based on subsequent essays, no one appears to be listening to her.

“The Architecture of Ideas,” Sir Ben Kingsley – A perhaps overheated plea to respect language, its rhythms and beauty, and not be seduced by technology or the idea that language doesn’t matter. This essay put me in mind of two versions of Macbeth I watched recently: The 2015 film by Justin Kurzel with Michael Fassbender, and the 2010 film by Rupert Goold with Patrick Stewart. I like both actors but Fassbender’s Macbeth just didn’t work for me. There didn’t seem to be an understanding of what Kingsley was getting at in this essay, and so much of the language was cut that only someone already familiar with the play would have been able to follow what was happening much of the time [beautifully shot, however]. I loved Stewart’s version so much I had to buy the DVD. Holy crap, that man can act! The opening scene alone is amazing enough but the rest of the DVD lives up to it. [I also liked the 1971 Polanski effort with Jon Finch.]

King Lear in Retrospect,” Cicely Berry – Berry is the director of voice at the Royal Shakespeare Company. I had hoped to read more about how she works with actors to bring out the power of WS’s language. There’s a lot about where and whom she’s taught, but not a lot of specifics about the what.

“Method and Madness,” Tobias Menzies – Occasionally I googled the authors, esp. the actors, because I wanted to know if I’d seen them in any context. I watch a lot of British TV but have a problem hooking names up with faces. It turns out that Menzies was the son of the Nazi-sympathizing innkeepers in “The White Feather,” an early episode from Foyle’s War. I have two notes from this essay, one concerns Menzies’ point that there’s no single or “correct” way to portray a WS character, and the other concerns the theme of using “madness” as an avenue to discovering who you are and why you’re here (in this essay he focuses on “Lear” and “Hamlet”).

“Character and Conundrum,” Rory Kinnear – Kinnear writes about how one approaches creating a character. With WS, there’s often little to go on, and an actor has to make decisions about how and why a character does what he or she does. He discussed how he approached two roles: Angelo in “Measure for Measure” and “Bolingbroke” in “Richard II.” He played the former as someone who believes in what he preaches but then finds himself in over his head when the Duke puts him in charge. He played Bolingbroke (the future Henry IV) as a man who truly did not want the crown but found himself becoming seduced by its power (to his dismay). [I didn’t have to google this one.]

“I Know a Hawk from a Handsaw Regardless of the Weather, But That’s Pretty Much It,” Matt Sturges – Don’t have much on this one. Just a quote from p. 102: “[A]s with so many things, with Shakespeare you get out exactly what you put in.”

The next three essays comprise the “Othello Trilogy”:

“The Sun God,” James Earl Jones – Jones focuses on the crucial temptation scene when Othello’s fatal flaw overwhelms his nobility and the inevitable tragedy follows. I found it interesting that Jones denies that Othello succumbs to jealousy. Instead his rage stems from the cognitive dissonance of his image of Desdemona and the one Iago conjures. He also observes that (in his interpretation) Iago too is broken, becoming a man with nothing to lose. Othello is not a victim since he freely chooses to believe the worst (otherwise there’s no tragedy). He appends some notes he made about how he would stage the scene that sounds like it would be amazing if produced.

“Othello in Love,” Eamonn Walker – I own the DVD of Walker’s and Tim McInnerny’s performance of “Othello” at the Globe. Walker’s Othello was fine but the stand out was McInnerny as Iago. It’s a revelation for me since I’ve only seen him in the Black Adder series, Black Death and Severance, among a few other things. But back to the essay: This is an example of how a different actor takes a wholly different approach to the character, though a no-less-legitimate one. [My notes here comment on Iago: In Jones’ interpretation, Iago is Othello’s darker alter ego – the man who does the dirty work and allows Othello to remain noble and pure; in Walker’s, Iago’s motivations are thwarted love and repressed sexual feelings toward the Moor.]

“Othello: A Play in Black and White,” Barry John – This was the most interesting of the “Othello” essays. John recounts how he participated in an adaptation of “Othello” that centered around an acting troupe putting on the play, and how the story of their production mirrored that of the play. It sounds like a fascinating experiment and I wish I could have seen it.

“Re-Revising Shakespeare,” Jess Winfield – Winfield is one of the founders of the Reduced Shakespeare Company, a comedy group specializing in abridged versions of the plays. The point Winfield makes here is that WS is not the Word of God. He’s meant to be chopped up, edited and revised (just like Will himself was constantly doing and just like any playwright/acting company does). He’s a welcome antidote to the deification of WS Bloom seems determined to effect. [I read Winfield’s My Name Is Will: A Novel of Sex, Drugs and Shakespeare in 2009 and gave it four stars so I suppose I’m recommending it.]

“I Say It Is the Moon,” Brian Cox – I first saw Cox in Rob Roy as the malicious factor or as the intelligence officer in the first few episodes of the Sharpe series. Either way, I instantly loved his performance and always enjoy watching him (even in crap like Troy). Here, he writes about Shakespeare’s plays as allegories of things breaking down and the restoration of order. This is also the first essay that raises the idea that WS is constantly searching, interrogating and exploring but never arriving at an answer or a final destination.

“The Question of Coriolanus,” Ralph Fiennes – This essay carries on from Cox’s thoughts about order vs. chaos. Both essays tend to slight Volumnia, Coriolanus’ mother. For an extended discussion about her, I strongly recommend the chapter in Tina Packer’s Women of Will.

“Trial by Theatre, or Free-Thinking in Julius Caesar,” Richard Scholar – Traditional academic essay (though not as awful as the Foreword or an upcoming chapter); readable but not terribly interesting. I don’t think WS deliberately set up a conflict between “free-thinking” and “authoritarian control” (Brutus vs. Caesar), though it reflects the theme of the last few pieces – that WS is adept at asking questions but refuses to answer them (or provides several possible answers). Scholar did afford me the opportunity to imagine an experiment I would have liked to try with my English classes when I was teaching (lo, many years ago now). Rather than write a paper that they’d probably crib from the Internet anyway, I’d have my students pretend to be an actor in whatever play we were studying and chronicle how they approached their the role and how they would act the part (modeled on Jones’ example in his essay and other instances from later in this volume).

“Saying in The Merchant of Venice,” Stanley Cavell – A reflection on Shylock’s acceptance of the verdict: Sudden & final. A realization that his fury is against all Christians (p. 257). Shylock loses the power of speech (figuratively) because he realizes that he will no longer be allowed to speak. He’s not recognized as “human” and neither entitled nor capable of it.

“Searching for Shylock,” F. Murray Abraham – Starts off as his thoughts on Shylock and what motivates him and it promised to be interesting but then it devolved into an essay on how the physical space in theaters affects how the actors work, and an extended paean to the theaters and actors he worked with while playing Shylock.

“Boldness Be My Friend,” Jessie Austrian, Noah Brody & Ben Steinfeld – How to present the “problem play” “Cymbeline.” First off, toss out the idea that there’s a “problem” to solve. Goes into a discussion of how they approached the play and tried to bring it to life. A concrete example of actors taking WS’s play and making it a collaboration.

“Killing Shakespeare and Making My Play,” Karin Coonrod – A description of how Coonrod interpreted “Love’s Labor’s Lost” [sic] and how she brought it to life on the stage.

“Playing Shakespeare at The Globe,” Dominic Dromgoole – Started off with what threatened to be a curmudgeonly jeremiad against modernizing WS (and it still tread closely to that) but veered off into a discussion about the power of language (e.g., Henry V’s speech to Harfleur’s governor does what all his siege engines and troops could not – gives him the city).

“Tolstoy and the Shakespearean Gesture,” Angus Fletcher – Outside of Bloom’s foreword, this is the most hideous of the academic essays in this volume. I knew I was in for a long read when I ran smack into this sentence in the first paragraph: “In this curious art form, action on a stage implied a psychological austerity of probable causes, supported by a suggestive, if never quite determining, rhetorical style of utterance” (p. 316). When all was read and done, I think he’s arguing that WS’s genius lies in his ability to create real people through everyday speech and action as opposed to the declamatory style of contemporary playwrights like Kyd and Marlowe.

“The Red Scarf,” J.D. McClatchy – A quote & a thought: “But it seems odd that Shakespeare, the language’s premier poet, should have had almost no direct influence on his poetic progeny” (pp. 333-4). Not enough of an English lit student to judge the worth of this insight.

“Spring Imagery in Warwickshire,” Germaine Greer – Speculation on WS’s relationship with his family and hometown. She argues that he spent considerable time in Stratford, most often in spring. Interesting enough if you’re writing a novel or a class paper and wanted to establish WS in his milieux. I don’t know how valuable this insight is really.

“What’s in a Name? Or Unnamed in the Forest,” James Prosek – Here’s my note: “WS wrote about the power of language, esp. names. Many characters assume different names and thus become different people (esp. the women), or they can’t change their names and duly suffer (“Romeo & Juliet”).” I was reminded here of Isabella in “Measure for Measure,” who is speechless by the end of the play, when she is apparently expropriated by the returned Duke, who has regained his name and the power of speech.

“The Sea Change,” David Farr – Another instance where I left myself an ambiguous note. This was a very short essay and didn’t hold my interest.

“Looking for Illyria,” Alan Gordon – First part is Gordon’s fascination with the Fool archetype and how he parleyed that into a series of novels using Feste and Viola as protagonists. The second part laments the fact that most Shakespeare productions where fools factor in do not cast real fools and tend to miss out on all the depth such casting could give the characters. [Despite the mixed reviews I’ve seen on GR, I was intrigued by the premise of Gordon’s novels and may decide to put them on my wish list.]

“Shakespeare’s Siblings,” Eleanor Brown – The theme of the last few essays is authors incorporating WS into their own works. Here, Brown discusses how family relationships in WS influenced her novels.

“A Star Danced,” Eve Best – Reflections on her portrayals of Lady Macbeth and Beatrice. Both are looking to repair their relationships with the men they love. Lady Macbeth errs fatally in her attempt to bridge the gap; Beatrice is more fortunate.

“Two Loves, or the Eternal Triangle,” Dame Harriet Walter – Many of WS’s plays revolve around a woman competing with a man for the love of the hero (see Sonnets as well): “Much Ado About Nothing” – Benedick-Beatrice-Claudio (et al.); “Merchant of Venice” – Antonio-Bassanio-Portia; “Hamlet” – Hamlet-Ophelia-Gertrude; “Troilus & Cressida” – Troilus-Cressida-Diomedes. She also brings up WS’s misogyny. She ends sounding forlorn: “I need to believe that he includes women in his embrace of humanity. But the truth is that I have to lay aside my aching curiosity and accept that I can never know the man whose words I love to speak and hear” (p. 406).

“Odd Man Out,” Jane Smiley – I couldn’t finish A Thousand Acres, Smiley’s version of “King Lear,” though I’ve liked Smiley’s nonfiction essays and reviews, including this one, which explores what Smiley sees as a maturation of WS’s thoughts about love and loss, from the apocalyptic ending of “Lear” to “The Winter’s Tale,” where “the end of the world is not the end of the world” (p. 411).

“The Living Drama,” Dame Margaret Drabble – Not sure what to make of this one. The last sentence suggests that the stage (less so film) offers the greatest opportunity to present WS in a variety of interpretations.

“The Tragedy of Imagination in Antony and Cleopatra,” Joyce Carol Oates – The conversion of “brute reality” into “lyric illusion” is the ultimate goal of WS in this play and in all of his work. Reality wins out in other plays but here the illusion triumphs.

“War and Love,” Maxine Hong Kingston – “Romeo & Juliet” as a horror story about love destroyed by a senseless war.

“On the Terrible and Unexpected Fate of the Star-Crossed Lovers,” Peter David – A whimsical piece describing the reactions of a mostly teen-age audience to the ending of Luhrmann’s “William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet.”

“Shakespeare and Four-Colour Magic,” Conor McCreery – This was one of my favorite essays. McCreery makes two points: If you can’t see WS, the next best thing is to read him in a comics format, which also can convey the dynamism that staging does in a theater or on film. Secondly, WS is a master at shifting tones in the plays, moving from comedy to tragedy and back. This is increasingly uncommon in today’s authors and directors pressed to keep narratives linear and clear to attract the broadest audience.

“Rough Magic,” Julie Taymor – Discusses her production of “The Tempest” with Helen Mirren as Prospera and the subtle changes a change in gender entailed: (1) Changed the focus from father-centered concerns about a daughter to mother-centered; (2) the disavowal of magic means a return to the restricted life of a woman in Milanese society (symbolized by Mirren reassuming the restrictive corset of courtly dress); and (3), unlike Prospero, who regains his freedom along with everyone else at the end, Prospera sacrifices hers.

“My Own Private River,” James Franco – Description of Franco’s recutting of Gus van Sant’s “My Own Private Idaho,” focusing on River Phoenix’s character of Mike Waters, a stand-in for Poins. “Shakespeare creates such a vivid, rich, and complex world that we can fruitfully focus on just one part of it and find inspiration for a whole variety of artistic endeavors” (p. 488).

“Enamoured with Shakespeare,” Isabel Allende – “Language was his only tool” (p. 491). If there’s one thing I’ve learned reading these essays it’s that WS – as far as his plays were concerned – expected his actors and audience to use a wealth of extralinguistic tools to drive the story. Otherwise, the usual stuff about WS’s genius and universality. This essay reminded me of Ted Reynold’s short story “Can These Bones Live,” which explored the possibility that there is something that transcends the aspirations and concerns of humans and is truly universal [highly recommended if you can find a copy].

If you’re still with me, I would recommend this book. Not every author is going to talk about something you’re interested in but if you have any interest in theater/film and Shakespeare, there’ll be something here that will catch your eye.

Their lives mattered only in their sum

The Great Ordeal: Book Three (The Aspect-Emperor Trilogy) - R. Scott Bakker

It would be impossible to discuss anything that happens in the third book of R. Scott Bakker’s Aspect Emperor series without massive spoilage so I’m only going to hint at what’s happened since the end of The White-Luck Warrior and offer a few thoughts on the series [NB: I’m going to assume readers of this review have read the latter book and will not avoid mentioning events from it].

The last book ended on several cliff hangers: In Momemn, Maithanet had been assassinated and Esmenet had seized total control only to have the Fanim arrive to besiege the city; Kelmomas lurked in the crevices of the Andiamine Heights, a poisonous little half-Dûnyain toad. In the Ordeal, Sorweel and Kellhus’ children Serwa and Moënghus traveled to Ishterebinth, the last Nonman Mansion, to be hostages in an alliance. And Achamian and Mimara finally reached Ishuäl, the Dûnyain retreat, only to find it in ruins. Book three picks up on all of these threads and adds that of Nersei Proyas, Achamian’s erstwhile student and Kellhus’ second-in-command:

Momemn: Kelmomas continues to manipulate Esmenet as only an eight-year-old child can, though with the abilities of a Dûnyain, and becomes fascinated with and terrified of the White-Luck Warrior – Maithanet’s assassin – who now lives at the palace. The New Empire teeters on the brink of dissolution.

The Ordeal: Kellhus reveals to Proyas the real motivations behind the Ordeal and provokes a crisis of belief in the Believer-King. The army as a whole continues to be tempered in the fires of battling Sranc and Bashrag, and this thread ends with a catastrophic battle at Dagliash.

Ishterebinth: The hostages immediately find that things are not as they seem in the last Mansion (though there are hints that Kellhus and his children were aware that something was not quite right about the proposed alliance), and Sorweel is key to awakening an ancient Nonman power.

Ishuäl and environs: Mimara and Achamian fall in with the last two survivors of Ishuäl, a son and grandson of Kellhus, and continue their journey to Golgotterath. Their thread ends in the wilderness south of Agongorea, where they fall in with an old acquaintance of Achamian’s thought long dead.

As I said, to expand further would almost immediately get into spoilers so I’ll leave it at that. If you’ve gotten this far in the series, then you have to read The Great Ordeal and hope Bakker gets the final book out soon because he’s ratcheted up the stakes and I honestly don’t know how he’s going to end things. Though I and others have commented on the parallels between this story and Tolkien (especially the journey through Cil-Aujas), Eärwa is not Middle-earth, the Hundred Gods are not the Valar, Achamian is not Gandalf, and Kellhus is most certainly not Aragorn. While you can’t possibly root for the Consult to win, its opponent – the Great Ordeal – is as damned as they are; fanatics who would find a comfortable home in any real-life fundamentalist extremist movement whether Christian, Jewish or Moslem (or Buddhist or Hindu, for that matter). Bakker’s universe is extraordinarily bleak from humanity’s point of view - Their lives, they understood, mattered only in their sum. And since this is the grim truth of all human life, the insight possessed the character of revelation (p. 268) – and yet some souls are saved and there are hints that life is not as crushingly hopeless as it appears when stripped of the comforting delusions humans create.

I can’t help but recommend this book and this series. It’s not for everyone, however. Bakker succeeds (IMO) in combining epic fantasy with serious philosophy but the philosophy is pretty deep and I can see where many will be put off by it. If you’re looking for something with a little more intellectual heft than Games of Thrones or nearly all other fantasies, then this is the one for you.

[A complaint about the editing: Whoever proofed the galleys for this edition should be fired. There are an unconscionable number of typos and grammar errors that even a novice copy editor should have caught. Overlook Press is living up to its name, unfortunately.]

The author of Hamlet was a woman? Well, I've heard stranger stuff...

The Secret Confessions of Anne Shakespeare - Arliss Ryan

What if...Anne Shakespeare had followed her husband to London and, posing as his sister, collaborated with him? In fact, being the sole author of many of the Bard's greatest works - Othello, Lear, Hamlet, and that Scottish play, among others. That's the premise of Ryan's novel, and she carries it off most of the time. The Secret Confessions is a not wholly implausible, first-person account of Anne and William's marriage, their writing career, and Anne's life as the real genius behind the plays.

I can't recommend it, however. And it's primarily because of the writing, which occasionally rises above the merely competent but not often enough to fully engage me. [In fact, up until about page 75, I was considering dropping this read but then Anne reaches London and the pace quickened for a while.] Ryan does manage to capture several powerful moment's in Anne's life, at which points the writing comes alive. For example, there's a eureka! moment when Anne hands off Romeo & Juliet to WS, who realizes that she's a brilliant author, probably better even than him. Or there's the fraught relationship between Anne and Ben Johnson. But it's broached and concluded within a couple of chapters; the writing then sinks back to "adequate."

For a narrator who's supposedly responsible for this:

To be or not to be - that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take up arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them. To die, to sleep
No more, and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to. 'Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished.

the writing should be - well - Shakespearean. Or at least strive for it, but it isn't and I never quite believed the narrator's story. There's a point when Anne is searching the bookstalls of London searching for inspiration and she makes the observation, "Even for recreation's sake, I simply could not abide incompetent writing" (p. 366). Which is close to what I felt while reading much of this novel. Though I wouldn't be so harsh as to say "incompetent." As I mentioned above, the writing is decent. It's fault lies in its flatness.

Ryan is too safe. She takes no chances with her characters or her story. Take the love triangle from the Sonnets. Ryan had a perfect opportunity to make Anne - WS's lover and rival - the Dark Lady but she doesn't. The entire WS-Southampton episode that so exercises many of the Bard's fans today is related as hearsay, and doesn't affect Anne at all nor does it seem to get Shakespeare riled up except for a few vague misgivings about the earl and what his coterie of favorites gets up to.

It's not a bad read and there are moments when it rises to a good one but not enough to make this a favorite among my Shakespeare-related fictions. If you're looking for something better written and more adventurous, I'd recommend Robert Nye's The Late Mr. Shakespeare.

Decent but not extraordinary collection

Aliens: Recent Encounters - Alex Dally MacFarlane, Catherynne M. Valente, Elizabeth Bear, Nancy Kress, CaitlĂ­n R. Kiernan, Ursula K. Le Guin, Ken Liu, Paul J. McAuley, Robert Reed, Lavie Tidhar, An Owomoyela, Zen Cho, Vandana Singh, Molly Gloss, Desirina Boskovich, Genevieve Valentine, Jamie Barras

Aliens: Recent Encounters is a decent collection of stories, most dealing with the consequences of encounters between humans and aliens [duh]. I picked it off the new-book shelf at one of my libraries because I saw that it contained works from some of my favorites - Ursula K. Le Guin, Caitlín R. Kiernan, Alastair Reynolds - and from some whose work I've read before and liked - Nisi Shawl, Paul McAuley, Nancy Kress, Greg Van Eekhout.

As it turned out, only Kress' story made it on to the list of stand outs. UKL and Kiernan were not on their A games with "Seasons of the Ansarac" and "I Am the Abyss, I Am the Light," respectively, but even their B games are better than most other's best efforts. Eekhout wrote one of my favorite short stories, "Wolves Till the World Goes Down," which I made my English students read in the Mythology unit when I was teaching, but I haven't been impressed by anything I've read of his since. And "Native Aliens" was no exception, being a pedestrian effort about colonialism and the children of colonizer & native.

The gems in this collection were (IMO):

"The Tetrahedron," Vandana Singh. It seems every SF author has to write their enigmatic-object-that-appears-suddenly-one-day story. Norman Spinrad did it in 1964 with "Rules of the Road." Singh's version is one of the better efforts in this subgenre.

"Knapsack Poems," Eleanor Arnason. This is one of the few stories with no human characters, and follows the wanderings of a group-entity alien similar to those in Vernor Vinge's A Fire Upon the Deep.

Gitte Christensen's "Nullipara" is a parable about a daughter and her father & their relationship after the world they've colonized radically changes one of them. As I write this, it occurs to me that a similar parent-child dynamic is played out in "muo-ka's Child" by Indrapramit Das, though her take is more optimistic (sort of).

"My Mother Dancing," by Nancy Kress, is about recognizing life and the obstacle of human prejudices.

I hadn't planned on including Genevieve Valentine's "Carthago Delenda Est" but the more I consider it, the more I'm coming around to thinking this might be the best of the lot. A rather bleak meditation on the intractably self-destructive nature of humans.

Not a full-throated recommendation but you could do worse.

Flawed but interesting retelling of Oedipus

Jocasta: The Mother-Wife of Oedipus - Victoria Grossack;Alice Underwood

Jocasta falls just short of three stars for two reasons, which I’ll detail below.

First, a precis: The novel recasts the myth of Oedipus as told from the titular character’s point of view (hopefully, I shouldn’t have to recount the traditional version of the myth?). Though the authors have elected to largely abandon any supernatural elements, there’s the Tiresias (the prophetic mouthpiece of Apollo), who does seem to channel a divine will when she (he) utters her (his) dooms.[1]

The Tiresias prophesizes that fourteen-year-old Jocasta will be queen of Thebes and marry its most famous king. She is chosen for Alphenor, the heir-apparent to Thebes’ rulers Amphion and Niobe. But on the night of the betrothal, Niobe blasphemes, the Tiresias curses the family, and all but one of the royal children die. The next day, Amphion is torn apart by a mob, and Niobe goes mad. Jocasta and her family are at a loss, especially in light of the prophecy, but things soon appear to be looking up when Laius, a son of a former Theban king, returns from exile in Pelops’ city of Pisa (Olympia), claiming the throne and Jocasta. The night of the wedding things do go well. Jocasta falls in lust at the sight of Laius, and Laius reciprocates the feeling. But soon after the couple consummates the marriage the prophetess tells Laius that any son of his will kill him. The king attempts to repudiate Jocasta but he has no cause, and – of course – she’s already pregnant with Oedipus. Nine months later, the newborn is torn from Jocasta’s arms and Laius has it exposed, or believes that the man he sends to do it, has done it. The novel passes over the next twenty years quickly. Laius continues to send tribute to Pelops and, living in fear of conceiving a son, never touches Jocasta again. Though Laius proves a most inept king, Jocasta and her brother Creon rule the city, and make it prosperous despite the tribute.

The story picks up when Laius decides to consult the Delphic oracle. As in the traditional version, he meets an unrecognized Oedipus on the way to Delphi, there’s an altercation, and Oedipus kills him. Subsequently, Creon organizes a competition in Thebes to find a new husband for his sister: Whoever can answer the riddles of Melanthe, the Maenad high priestess, will become the next king of the city. Oedipus shows up to participate, and as with Laius, Jocasta is smitten at first sight. Because Oedipus is the supposed son of Corinth’s king and an alliance with that city would counter the power of Pelops, Creon conspires to ensure that the youth wins the contest.

Again, the next two decades are glossed: Jocasta and Oedipus rule an ever more fortunate Thebes, and they have four beautiful children: Antigone, Ismene, and the twins Eteocles and Polynikes. And then everything goes sour when Jocasta’s relationship with her husband comes out.

Why not three stars (or more)?

One reason is the writing. It’s just “meh” – competent but not particularly beautiful or elegant. And there are anachronisms that jar the reader out of the early Iron Age setting, making her wonder if a Mycenaean Greek would have actually said that.

I could have forgiven such clumsiness, however – as I have with other authors – if Jocasta had been a more compelling character, but she has no arc. The child of the first chapter is not all that different from the fifty-plus-year-old woman of the final chapter. Jocasta comes across as rather clueless and passive, particularly in the hands of her brother, whose personal ambitions, machinations and political acumen are what keep Thebes strong. I can accept that a fourteen-year-old girl, growing up insulated from the hurly-burly of politics, would be at sea when suddenly thrust onto center stage. But if I’m to continue to be interested in her at all, she has to show some maturation over the course of the twenty and forty years that the last two-thirds of the novel encompass. It’s difficult to see that in this version of Jocasta.

I was impressed by how the authors euhemerized the myth. It worked for me, though I’m still puzzled about the role of the Tiresias, the one ambiguously supernatural element. In the end, though, the book reads like a first or (at best) second draft. There’s a potentially interesting character in Jocasta, and you can see the glimmerings of potential in Cleon’s and Oedipus’ but they’re not drawn sufficiently well to make me recommend the book. On the other hand, if you like this genre (as I do), it may be just good enough to warrant a perusal.

[1] Tiresias is a title for the blinded person who speaks for Apollo. In the beginning, the post is held by an old woman. When she dies, her successor is Jocasta’s father, Menoeceus.


A tragically unknown tale of Arthur's Britain

The Life of Sir Aglovale de Galis - Clemence Housman

I was sitting on the fence about whether or not to give this book three or four stars. It’s not an unalloyed “4” but neither is it a mere “3.” In the end, evidently, I went with four stars. It’s one of the better Arthurian-themed books I’ve read and there are some scenes in it that will stick with me for a while (more about that in the spoiler-laden thoughts below).


I would recommend this novel to anyone interested in the Matter of Britain, who wants to read about a fully developed character torn between the basest and highest impulses of human nature, and who also wants to do it while reveling in the archaic style of Malory or de Troyes. [The writing style imitates that of Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur as it is ostensibly written by a friend or follower of his, and it leaves no prisoners. There are passages from the book where I’m still not quite sure what happened though later context usually makes things evident.[1] It can be off-putting, and was for the first few chapters but as with my experiences reading Marlon James and Sandra Newman, persistence pays off and you’ll be well rewarded.]


The following thoughts contain significant spoilage:


The Life of Sir Aglovale de Galis recounts the exploits of one of Arthur’s more obscure knights, the oldest legitimate son of King Pellinore. He is burdened with the same base passions his father had in his youth, and always comes second-best behind his brothers Tor, Lamorak and Percivale (of Grail fame). Yet he is also capable of great good, as was Pellinore, and is burdened with a conscience that tortures him. Aglovale is also incapable of compassion, which leads him to commit the cruelest murders and rapes when he indulges his passions. Yet, it serves him ill too when he acts responsibly, as people find his judgment overly harsh and uncompromising. He reminds me of Angelo from Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. Both men are accounted just and honest – excessively so – but neither understands that those traits must be balanced with mercy. And both are sorely tempted and fall.


Shall we desire to raze the sanctuary,
And pitch our evils there? O, fie, fie, fie!
What dost thou, or what art thou, Angelo?
Dost thou desire her foully for those things
That make her good? O, let her brother live;
Thieves for their robbery have authority
When judges steal themselves. What, do I love her,
That I desire her to speak again,
And feast upon her eyes? What is’t I dream on?
O cunning enemy, that, to catch a saint,
With saints dost bait thy hook! Most dangerous
Is that temptation that doth goad us on
To sin in loving virtue. Never could the strumpet,
With all her double vigor, art and nature,
Once stir my temper. Ever till now,
When men were fond, I smiled, and wond’red how. (Act II, scene ii)


Oh, heavens,
Why does my blood thus muster to my heart,
Making both it unable for itself,
And dispossessing all my other parts
Of necessary fitness?
So play the foolish throngs with one that swounds,
Come all to help him, and so stop the air
By which he should revive; and even so
The general, subject to a well-wished king,
Quit their own part, and in obsequious fondness
Crowd to his presence, where their untaught love
Must needs appear offense.

Fit thy consent to my sharp appetite,
Lay by all nicety and prolixious blushes,
That banish what they sue for; redeem thy brother
By yielding up thy body to my will,
Or else he must not only die the death,
But thy unkindness shall his death draw out
To ling’ring sufferance. Answer me tomorrow,
Or, by the affection that now guides me most,
I’ll prove a tyrant to him. As for you,
Say what you can, my false o’erweighs your true. (Act II, scene iv)


And in Aglovale’s case:


Sir, this I know: the Devil forsakes his servants never. Him I served, and I cannot get free. For ever he bids me break chastity, and ever he bids me resent humiliation; and as I do not, night and day, flesh and spirit must burn at his fires, for he is my master. Ah God, ah God, I get no ease! Lo, in Percivale how chastity and humility grow like flowers that are sweet to the sun. Lo, in me the same fume like scutch, and my own brothers let me know of evil odour. (p. 81)


Aglovale spends many years striving to be good – moving between periods of upright behavior and deeds most foul, and the harshest atonements. In one of the most intense episodes, Agravaine and Gaheris, sons of King Lot, ambush Aglovale, crippling his left hand and disfiguring his face.[2] They then tie a rock around his neck and throw him in a bog to drown. A peasant rescues the poor knight and puts him up in a mill. That night, Aglovale spies from a window his would-be murderers floundering in the marsh. This is the culmination of his internal struggle but not his suffering: Does he ignore the plight of Agravaine and Gaheris, leaving them to die, or save them? He chooses the latter (though manages to carry it off without revealing his identity), and from that moment on begins a painful process of becoming the knight whom he’s aspired to be. Even so, he cannot escape the consequences of his past: When he comes to Camelot, where Arthur is accustomed to call upon his knights to report on what they’ve done, the King does not do so in Aglovale’s case, and the man realizes that it’s because Arthur would not believe a word he said:


Said Arthur, grave and firm, “Let that alone. I have no mind to hear what Sir Aglovale has a mind to tell.


Aglovale, startled, sat up rigid, and stared against the King full and hard, agape and breathless. For the moment he had no other thought than that Arthur was privy to his nephews’ villainy, and purposed to cover it.


But before the face of Arthur so dishonouring a suspicion could not stand. The face of Arthur, sombre to sadness, altered before his eyes, hardened, darkened, overawed the insolent affront of his gaze with an access of majestic severity.


Suddenly Aglovale understood: Arthur held him an approved liar worth no credence. (p. 194)


In the penultimate scene, it’s Aglovale’s role to go before Arthur and lay bare the canker that’s festered at the heart of the King’s court since the beginning of his reign, and which threatens to destroy everything he’s sought to accomplish – the hypocrisy of knightly honor and the lies that have hidden secrets too long buried:


Yet for thirty years immunity had been his, while hatred turned another way and spent itself. And now the blood bond was so firm, and the blood feud so spent, that well might Arthur come to think pardon might yet be to him without punishment in this world. Aglovale de Galis knew better: though he had made up his account to all appearance upon earth, the laws he had broken were the laws of God given to man, and sooner or later the hand of God would bring him to exact account. For the mercy of God He writes softly in the dark of each heart; but His justice He writes plain before man. (p. 274)


It’s the Matter of Britain so the end is inevitably tragic. Aglovale’s sense of justice and truth compel him to stand with Arthur, and so he dies at Launcelot’s hands when that warrior rescues Guenever from the stake. An ending made more tragic in that Launcelot was one of the few knights who recognized Aglovale’s worth and envied him the strength that allowed him to confront his demons and misdeeds and face the censure of his fellows.


Clemence Housman has created a tremendous character in Aglovale de Galis, and I would strongly recommend this book.


[1] Case in point: There’s a scene early in the book where Gaheris accuses Aglovale of crimes, and Aglovale makes the cardinal mistake of freely admitting to them before the whole Court. What he should have done was call out Gaheris to a joust (or “just,” as Housman spells it) and prove himself in combat. Disgusted, Gaheris refuses to fight him, and Aglovale winds up fighting the one knight who had stood up for him, Griflet. I’m still not quite sure why the code of chivalry required this.


[2] The reader needs to know that there is a blood feud between the sons of Lot and those of Pellinore because the latter killed the former in battle. Though Gareth is a knight beyond reproach, his brothers are not, having foully murdered both Pellinore and Aglovale’s other brother Durnor, also in ambush.

Mourning the death of the Republic and the birth of the Empire

Bomb Power 1st (first) edition Text Only - Garry Wills

Lifeless and boring; grating writing style

The Grace of Kings - Ken Liu

I gave this book a little more than one hundred pages to capture me but it never did. The writing is hopelessly clumsy and the dialogues inane. The author's prose has the unfortunate effect of making the characters lifeless and uninteresting. I have little sense of the milieux that produce Kuni Garu and Mata Zyndu, the novel's protagonists. Though it's obvious Liu's put a great deal of thought into the East Asian-flavored world of Dara, I often felt that I was reading a Wikipedia entry.

This is my opinion, of course. Other people will find something in this book that speaks to them, even if only to make a long bus ride pass more pleasantly. But for my part, I'm not going to devote more time to a story I have no interest in and an author whose style grates on my ear.

Oh, Lord, spare me the overwrought metaphor!

Berlin Noir: March Violets / The Pale Criminal / A German Requiem - Philip Kerr

Couldn’t finish.


Let me explain: I’m not a devoted fan of the mystery genre though I’m thankful to GoodReads for introducing me to some worthy authors in that field that I would otherwise never have read. In the normal course of affairs, I probably would not have picked this book up even though the premise – a detective working in Nazi and post-war Germany – was promising. However, I work with a woman who likes this sort of thing and I keep my eye open for books to recommend or get for Xmas gifts.


In this case, I definitely can’t recommend this author to her, nor to anyone else.


The writing is not compelling or really very good. As a reader I was constantly being thrown out of the story by Kerr’s clumsy and overwrought metaphors. Perhaps I’m missing the point. Perhaps Kerr is parodying the noir genre with passages like this:


Back in the bedroom, she was still standing there, waiting for me to come and help myself. Impatient of her, I snatched her knickers down, pulling her onto the bed, where I prised her sleek, tanned thighs apart like an excited scholar opening a priceless book. For quite a while I pored over the text, turning the pages with my fingers and feasting my eyes on what I had never dreamed of possessing (pp. 68-9).




The concierge was a snapper who was over the hill and down a disused mine-shaft. Her hair was every bit as natural as a parade goose-stepping down the Wilhelmstrasse, and she’d evidently been wearing a boxing-glove when she’d applied the crimson lipstick to her paperclip of a mouth. Her breasts were like the rear ends of a pair of dray horses at the end of along hard day. Maybe she still had a few clients, but I thought it was a better bet that I’d see a Jew at the front of a Nuremberg pork-butcher’s queue (p. 97).


I stuck with it for more than a hundred pages but in the end, I wasn’t interested enough to continue.

So true, so true!

How to Tell If Your Cat Is Plotting to Kill You - Matthew Inman, The Oatmeal

Point number 3, "If you nap here it rises up and down - feels like riding a warm sailboat across the comfy seas of awesome," is my cat Emma. Even to the position.

PS - Emma turned 20 years young this month (Sept 2015):

(Emma's on the right)

Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes

Love, Sex & Tragedy: How the Ancient World Shapes Our Lives - Simon Goldhill

What I liked about Simon Goldhill’s Love, Sex & Tragedy was that he (mostly) avoids sounding like a curmudgeonly stick-in-the-mud who can’t handle the loss of the classical curriculum in education and the knowledge of Western civilization’s origins. He laments it not because he wants to hear people quoting Homer from memory (in the original Greek) or see glowing comparisons of politicians to Cincinnatus but because he sees little evidence that what’s replaced it is tackling the same issues in as deep a manner. He doesn’t see any counterparts today to Homer, Herodotus and Thucydides, or to Sophocles and Euripides, among others. And this dumbing down of our public discourse infects all aspects of culture – politics, entertainment, social relationships, literature, the arts, etc.

Why study the classics?

I’m going to be lazy and simply quote the author from the last pages of the book, where he concludes:

For thinking hard about the past reveals the buried life of the present, its potential for change, for being different. Looking back critically at where we come from is a revelatory education about the present.

The simplest point that emerges from looking back at how the myths of Greece and Rome have functioned in the history of European culture is this: the past matters. It matters because in psychological, social, intellectual, artistic and political terms the past is formative of the present. It is the person’s or culture’s deep grounding. It matters how the past is understood or told. Stories change lives. They make foundations, they build hopes and they can kill. A self-aware appreciation of the past requires reflecting on the myths and the histories, the story-telling and the critical analysis, which makes sense of the past – and thus the present....

Understanding the past also requires that we understand how previous generations thought of the past, were stimulated and inspired by it, rebelled against it, denied it. Classical antiquity has constantly been reinvented as the privileged model of the past, and it has been thus a force for comprehending – and changing – the present....

If we do not recognize how classical antiquity furnished the imagination, stimulated and structured thought and acted as a banner of artistic and political revolution, our view of our own cultural tradition will be necessarily distorted. (pp. 319-20)

Aside from the general conclusion above, I found several of the specifics the author focuses on interesting. One in particular stood out because of personal interests, and I’ll mention it here so you can get an idea of the issues Goldhill deals with. He spends a great deal of time (two chapters – 26 pages) discussing the Oedipus myth (as transmitted by Sophocles; there were other versions) and how it became and remains a profound analysis of the human condition, helped by Freud making it the basis for his psychology.

Oedipus is the archetypal hero figure trying to discover where he comes from: “Oedipus’ search for himself, his journey to discover where he comes from, is the paradigmatic example of how we must look back for self-knowledge, but also of how disturbing and painful that necessary process can be” (p. 298) and “Most shocking is the play’s insistent and disturbing claim that is it exactly at the moment you think you know where you come from and who you are that you are most open to a tragedy of self-deception” (p. 306). Goldhill sees Oedipus as particularly important in the 21st century when Western civilization struggles ever more desperately to know and to control but only seems to discover ever more uncertainty and ever less control.

I would recommend the book. Even if you don’t agree with the author’s conclusions in parts of the book, it’s still an interesting look at the influence Greece and Rome had and continues to have over our lives.

Following the feminine in Shakespeare's plays

Women of Will: Following the Feminine in Shakespeare's Plays - Tina Packer

I think some reviews miss the point of Women of Will. This book is not an academic text written by someone who hasn’t “trod the boards” but by a producer, director and actor of Shakespeare’s plays who’s been engaging with the Bard for 40+ years, and who is presenting the insights she has gleaned from her experiences. And even more, it’s the author’s particular conclusions about Shakespeare’s relationship with women and how that came out in his plays. The reader can accept Packer’s interpretations as valid or not, depending upon their own reading (or acting) of the plays. What makes Packer’s interpretations so interesting is certainly not their academic rigor but that they’re made in the context of a firmly held belief that words can remake the world:

The actor Shakespeare could feel in his body the truth; the writer Shakespeare could record what he saw in the outside world and he gave to women the words to expose the dichotomy between what lay within and what was expected from without. And the only way to bridge the gap, alter, and bring it to a new relationship is through love. The women acknowledge the love and go on the journey. Creativity? It is the ability to see the world as it is, imagine what it might be, and step out with love (p. 299).

I’m not going to discuss the whole book. Packer looks at most of the plays over the course of 300 pages. To give you a taste, though, I will focus on two that I find personally interesting – “Troilus and Cressida” and “Measure for Measure” – and a section the author calls “The Plague Years,” where she imagines what Shakespeare was up to during the 1590s.

Packer’s readings of Shakespeare don’t exclude others. In preparing this review I pulled Mark van Doren’s Shakespeareand Marjorie Garber’s Shakespeare After All off my shelves to refresh my memory about what they had written. Van Doren’s “Troilus and Cressida” essay dismisses Cressida in less than a sentence, “That Cressida is not worth all this does not damage it as rhetoric…” (p. 174). As Packer argues in regards to Troilus, van Doren too appears unable to empathize with Cressida. Garber’s essay is more academic. She does treat of the women in the play but even she has little sympathy to spare for the young woman. Regarding “Measure for Measure,” van Doren is close to Packer, though he is writing from a broader perspective. She would agree with his conclusion: “It is the permanent symbol for a city, itself all earth and rotting straw, with which Shakespeare at the moment can do no more than he had been able to do with the diseased bones of Pandarus’s Troy. All he can do is stir it until its stench fills every street and creeps even into the black holes of prisons…. The bank of dark cloud above her [Vienna’s] forehead is never burned away” (pp. 191-2). In Garber’s “Measure for Measure” chapter, here too she and Packer are closer in readings than otherwise, touching on many similar themes, though – again – Garber’s perspective is broader. Which is understandable. Women of Will is not about anything but Shakespeare’s representation of women. Packer is interested in what she believes were Shakespeare’s encounters with real women that allowed him to grow as a writer and create increasingly sophisticated and nuanced characterizations not only of women but of men.

“The Plague Years”

This section is a speculative romp through Shakespeare’s life from 1587-1594, where Packer believes that something extraordinary happened to him: he fell in love. Through that love, his perception of women fundamentally changed. “He wrote as if he were a woman. Embodying them. Giving them full agency” (p. 52). The woman he fell in love with was the Dark Lady of the sonnets, whom Packer believes was Aemilia Lanyer (née Bassano), daughter of an expat Venetian musician and an English woman, also a musician. Shamefully perhaps, I had no idea that this remarkable woman existed, though now I’m interested in reading her work. It’s from his relationship with Aemilia, which may have lasted for these few years or perhaps for the 20 or so they could have known each other before his death, that Shakespeare “finally got it about women” (p. 90). His engagement with Lanyer inspired him to create female characters like Juliet, Beatrice, Rosaline and Lady Macbeth, and influenced his male roles as well, lifting them from the near greats like Richard III to the truly greats like Othello, Hamlet and Lear.

Of course, the Dark Lady wasn’t the sole influence that made Shakespeare Shakespeare during these years. Packer imagines quite a bit in reconstructing them. Aside from his new-found insights into women, perhaps the most important of these were the contacts he made with the circle of men and women who were the leading literary lights of the period and their noble sponsors – in particular Kit Marlowe and the Earls of Essex and Southampton. Shakespeare realized four things (according to Packer): One, poets were the greatest truth-tellers because their poetry gave them perceptions others couldn’t have [justifying Shakespeare’s life]. Two, music and poetry induced higher levels of knowledge and consciousness. [Shakespeare’s work began to incorporate music and his words became more rhythmic; he became conscious of the harmonies in a well-crafted sentence.] Three, poets are inspired, perhaps by something outside of themselves (the Muse) or something deep inside (the unconscious). Wherever it comes from, this “frenzy” cannot be denied. And, four, poetry – and even more so, theater – brought everyone, from the meanest pauper to the wealthiest noble, to the same perception and consciousness:

[J]okes about bodily functions and elementary sexual acts make people laugh, so they let go of themselves and un-self-consciously inhabit their bodies, and that this, combined with the most sublime poetry, allows the full spectrum of man’s being. Theatre can do something poetry by itself could never do – it can give us all of humanity, all kinds of people standing side by side, building a community of understanding, empathetic understanding. And that connection in turn fosters the perception and language of God. Potent and regenerative (p. 68).

“Troilus and Cressida”

I like “Troilus and Cressida” because, of Shakespeare’s three great plays about star-crossed lovers [“Romeo and Juliet” and “Antony and Cleopatra” are the other two], this one seems to me to be the most honest. Which shows what a pessimist I am.

Packer unpacks “Troilus and Cressida” in relation to “Romeo and Juliet” and “Antony and Cleopatra” and asks the question, “Why does this love fail?” Her answer is the unequal relationship between the lovers. Troilus is a prince of Troy, son of Priam. He has wealth, status, and the respect of family and comrades. Cressida is the daughter of a traitor and otherwise without family, status or wealth except for an oily uncle (Pandarus), whose situation mirrors her own. Her only asset is her virginity and she’ll be utterly vulnerable if she gives it up to Troilus.

But she does after both lovers pledge their undying love for each other in a scene worthy of the two more famous tragedies[1]. But where Romeo and Juliet and Antony and Cleopatra do die for each other, Troilus leaves Cressida at the mercy of Troy’s council, who have decided to trade her for the warrior Antenor. Abandoned and alone in the Greek camp, the teen-age girl’s spirit collapses and she throws herself on the mercy of Diomedes, a Greek warrior who seems sympathetic. Troilus, witnessing her from afar but unable to empathize with her plight, believes she’s unfaithful and abandons his love for the forgetfulness of violence. And so ends this love as one would expect it to in real life. The lovers don’t understand each other and fail to live up to the ideals they so readily espoused when their relationship was unthreatened; the relationship is destroyed; the lovers live on, though, and have to cope.

“Measure for Measure”

“Measure for Measure” doesn’t flinch from the fact that life is messy. Relying on a definitive recipe that answers all your questions, satisfies all your desires, and lets you get away with suppressing half of your identity leads to all kinds of trouble.

There are three protagonists: the Duke, Angelo and Isabella. Packer largely ignores the Duke as he’s peripheral to her intent. Angelo is a cold-hearted, supremely logical fellow who’s put in charge of Vienna to curb its carnal excesses. Isabella, arguably equally cold-hearted and logical, is a novice of the Order of St. Clare whose devotion to Christ is put to the test when Angelo threatens her virtue to save her brother. Both have walled themselves off form the messy business of emotions. When Angelo meets Isabella and argues with her over the fate of her brother, he recognizes a woman who can meet him on an equal footing and falls desperately in love with her. Unfortunately, he lacks the capacity to respond to her as an equal. He can only engage with her in debate or – in the end – by forcing her to accede to his desire. Isabella, for her part, is as constrained as Angelo. Unable, unwilling to admit to the possibility of love, she doesn’t recognize Angelo as a fellow soul. In the one moment when Angelo breaks down and opens the door to love, she refuses to walk through, instead threatening to expose him.

“Measure for Measure” examines the unconscious motivations present in all of us. Obviously, that’s not how Shakespeare would have put it but he recognized the relationship between repressed desire and physical violence. Once Angelo admitted to feeling a sexual attraction, he opened himself to myriad emotions that overwhelm his ever-so-rational mind: “Why does my blood thus muster to my heart, / Making both it unable for itself, / And dispossessing all my other parts / Of necessary fitness?” (2.4, 20-23)

“Measure for Measure” is listed as a comedy among Shakespeare’s plays. And everything does appear to work itself out in the end (as all comedies should) – Claudio lives and is reunited with Juliet, Angelo marries his fiancée Mariana, Lucio marries Kate Keepdown, and the Duke proposes marriage to Isabella. But I can’t imagine any of these pairings being successful except for Claudio and Juliet’s, which is the only one that’s based on any sort of mutual attraction and equality, the factors that Packer has stressed throughout the book that are critical to a successful relationship. It’s often brought up that Shakespeare leaves it up in the air how Isabella responds to the Duke’s proposal. By this point in the play, she’s speechless – literally. Various troupes have interpreted the character differently. Some have her responding with joy; others with horror. I lean toward the “horror” crowd. If they could get over their psychological hang-ups, it’s Angelo and Isabella who should marry.

There is one final thing I want to highlight. In one of her digressions, Packer discusses Shakespeare’s quest to discover what is the “soul,” which paralleled his discovery of the “female.” I thought it was an interesting insight. It sums us why she’s devoted so much of her life engaging with the Bard, and I quote her conclusion in full:

So I think in the end where Shakespeare comes out is: The soul is a verb, not a noun. It is substantive but not material. It lives in every breath we take. Therefore, the potential to be open to life is there within our bodies in every moment. The soul is the ability to sustain love – real love, which renews itself in the creative act. It is the maiden phoenix, the bird of the spirit, which burns up itself (which is painful) and, out of the ashes, creates itself anew (which is often hard but ultimately joyful). It can join with another, or many. It fills the body, is deeply erotic, and generates new life (p. 107).

As should be apparent from my rating, I enjoyed this book[2]. While some of her non-Shakespearean asides are cringe worthy[3], I found her Shakespeare-centered commentary stimulating and it made me see the plays in a new light. For example, her discussion of Goneril and Regan in “King Lear” revealed aspects of their characters that I hadn’t considered. They’re still not “nice people” but they’ve become more rounded individuals in my mind, and their motivations clearer.

Definitely recommended for Shakespeare fans, especially those interested in the insights of someone who’s directed and acted in the plays.

[1] Though Packer points out that Troilus’ language is more reminiscent of Romeo’s in regards to Rosalind, the woman he’s swooning for before meeting Juliet and whom he’s never actually met.

[2] Enough that I’ve ordered my own copy (albeit the paperback edition, which comes out next year (2016).

[3] As I write these words, I’m thinking in particular of her explanation of the Holy Roman Empire and the relationship between Emperor and Pope (p. 202).

The Eden that never was

Ancient Mesopotamia - Susan Pollock

I work second shift and so find myself driving home late at night most weekdays, where I often while away the commute by listening to “Coast to Coast AM with George Noury.” For those who do not recognize the name, George hosts an interview/call-in show that caters to conspiracy theorists, New Age gurus, cryptozoologists, (unfortunately) the occasional right-wing wacko like Alex Jones, ghost hunters, numerologists...you get the idea.

It’s fun. I’ve always been impressed by George’s ability to agree with whatever insane theory his on-air guest is propounding even though the previous night he was equally agreeable to someone whose ideas utterly contradict the current guest’s.

One of George’s favorite theorists is Zechariah Sitchin, famous for his Earth Chronicles books, which argue that humans were created by a race of aliens – the Annunaki – from the planet Nibiru. Nibiru orbits the sun every 1,600 years in an elliptical orbit, and every so often wanders into the inner Solar System. About a ½ million years ago, an expedition from that planet came to Earth and set down in the southern Mesopotamian plain. They created humans by combining their DNA with the local primates’, creating a slave-labor force that would help them mine minerals, esp. gold. Sitchin “proved” his hypothesis with a selective reading of Sumerian and other Mesopotamian writings as well as culling the Bible for “clues.”

It is with enjoyment that I turn from books like Sitchin’s to those written by people who’ve actually worked on Mesopotamian sites, and there discover how much more interesting the actual story is compared to the fantasy.[1] Such is the case with Susan Pollock’s Ancient Mesopotamia: The Eden that Never Was. Pollock is an associate professor of anthropology at State University of New York at Binghamton (or she was when the book was published in 1999) and has done fieldwork in Iraq, Iran and Turkey, and has here produced a brief introduction to the earliest civilizations of the Middle East.

The book’s time frame stretches from 5000 to 2100 BC – technically the Ubaid (5000-4000), the Uruk (4000-3100), the Jemdet Nasr (3100-2900), the Early Dynastic (2900-2350) and the Akkadian (2350-2100) periods. Pollock marshals evidence showing how urban civilization developed and spread from southern Mesopotamia, organically and without the aid of aliens or divine interventions.

The book’s audience is not the general reader, even ones interested in history/archaeology, but rather a beginning student. There are pages of graphs and charts comparing things such as animal bones and sizes of sites, for example. Though, I’m not studying to be an archaeologist, I found the book fascinating so what follows is a summary of the main points I gleaned from it.

The first chapter after the Introduction, “Geographic setting and environment,” makes two chief observations. The first is that Mesopotamia is a dynamic landscape. Neither the Tigris nor Euphrates rivers are as reliable as the Nile: the periodic flooding usually occurs at the worst time of the year from a farmer’s point of view and the rivers (and tributaries) regularly overflow their banks and change course. Human intervention – deforestation and salinization, primarily – further alters the region’s ecology, causing agricultural expansion/collapse cycles.[2] This dynamism, along with the second observation – the lack of significant stone and metal resources – were important in the development of urban centers and large-scale states.

“Settlement patterns,” the next chapter, presents evidence for the increase in the number of permanent settlements and the growth of urban centers at the expense of smaller, rural villages over time. Pollock also suggests that people shifted from sedentary lifestyles to more mobile ones relatively frequently in response to that dynamic landscape mentioned above.

“Making a living: tributary economies of the fifth and fourth millennia” and “A changing way of life: the oikos-based economy of the third millennium” track the development of a tribute-based economy where most productive activity still occurred in individual households to an oikos-based one:

In the tributary economies of the fifth and fourth millennia, political and economic leaders strove to control the distribution of goods; direct control over production of most goods…appears to have been limited. In the oikos economy, by contrast, many forms of production as well as distribution were controlled directly. Control over production was ensured by the concentration of the means of production…in the hands of the oikoi rather than the producers (p. 147).

Increasingly, production was divorced from its formerly domestic context, and producers lost control over their output.

“The growth of bureaucracy” takes up the origins of writing:

For ancient Mesopotamia as for many other parts of the world, it has become increasingly clear that writing was not the primary catalyst for major social, political, or economic change. Rather, the invention of writing was a response to other changes that...required a more flexible system of accounting and record keeping. Although...scholars continue to debate the extent to which writing developed directly out of tokens, there is no doubt that writing originated in the context of a growing bureaucracy (p. 172).

In “Ideology and images of power,” Pollock looks at the roles religion, monumental architecture and sculpture took in enforcing and justifying the status quo, and shows how ideology changed over time. Each era had its own “flavor”: The Ubaid period tended to mask inequalities and promoted communal unity. Uruk identified the social order with the natural order.[3] Later periods built on Uruk’s model but introduced local and interregional competition between city-states and larger polities like Akkad and Elam.

“Death and the ideology of community” continues the theme taken up in the previous chapter and relates it to death: “Mortuary practices are the deliberate, meaningful expressions of people’s views about themselves, other members of the society, and/or the world as they perceive or wish others to perceive it” (p. 216). Over time, the Ubaid-era emphasis on community and “all are equal in death” gave way to increasingly differentiated burials, expressing the decedent’s status while alive.

I want to digress and mention how different this is from the ancient Egyptians’ attitude about death and the afterlife, to which I’ve recently been exposed having read Toby Wilkinson’sLives of the Ancient Egyptians and Genesis of the Pharaohs. Where the typical Sumerian saw death as “the House of Darkness” where “those who dwell do without light, where dirt is their drink, their food is of clay” and “light cannot be seen,” the Egyptian expected to pass his time in a more perfect – definitely sunnier – place than he occupied in life. An essentially optimistic view.

The concluding chapter touches on why Sumer and later Mesopotamian cultures developed the way they did:

Mesopotamian civilization…emerged in an inhospitable environment, with a harsh and unpredictable climate and limited natural resources. The unpredictability and ever-present risks associated with agriculture…played important roles in the particular social, economic, and political forms taken by Mesopotamian societies. Institutions or cooperative groups that pooled resources and risks were preferred.... Chronic tendencies toward soil salinization and the availability of large tracts of arable and pasture land encouraged frequent movements of settlement.... The importance of microenvironmental differences for agricultural success in Mesopotamia, the necessity of irrigation, and the instability of the Euphrates River regime all contributed to the unequal growth of settlements and, ultimately, urbanization (p. 219).

The author ends by calling for greater in-depth study of how ordinary people lived. Pollock’s focus in the preceding pages has been on such research; she rarely mentions specific individuals (like Sargon of Akkad or Lagash’s Urukagina), focusing instead on the “boring” evidence of how societies functioned day to day. But continued research is necessary. She also asks for a focus on gender-related research. The roles men and women (and children) played in economies and politics are not well understood. Class, wealth and religious belief, for example, all factored into relative status and power, and it is difficult – not to say, ill-advised – to make generalizations.

I can’t recommend this book for everyone. As I mentioned above, its audience is not the general reader, who’s probably more interested in reading about the historical origins of Gilgamesh or the Flood myth and would prefer a narrative history. But if you have a deeper interest in and not too much familiarity with the subject of (really) ancient Mesopotamia, then I think this is a good place to start. The 21-page bibliography provides ample fodder for further reading.

[1] The same can be said for authors like Toby Wilkinson, whose books on Egypt I’ve enjoyed for the opportunity to glimpse an admittedly “alien” but thoroughly human world.

[2] Though not discussed in this volume, I have read elsewhere about the roles climate change and ecological collapse have played in the rise and fall of empires.

[3] A tendency one still finds in politics and economics today, unfortunately.

Irreverent, raunchy take on Merlin's life

Merlin - Robert Nye

Merlin is Robert Nye's irreverent, raunchy and often lyrical (Nye's a poet) take on the Arthur legend. Many scenes reminded me of John Boorman's "Excalibur." To take one example: Arthur and Mordred's fight at their last battle:

Mordred in black armour rode to kill the king. King Arthur ran at Mordred with his spear so that the spear went right through Mordred's body and out the other side.

"Father! My father!" Mordred cries. He thrusts himself forwards along the spear that is killing him. He drags himself on. He crawls slowly, hanging by his wound. He hauls himself inch by inch to reach the king (p. 210).

If you've seen Boorman's film, that should bring to mind the very similar point where Arthur and Mordred meet in battle:

Which is not say that the book (first published in 1978) and the movie (1981) are at all alike. They are very different versions of the Once and Future King's reign.

I came across this book while perusing Merlin's page on Wikipedia. If you prefer your Arthur legends more respectful in tone and execution (and less sexually explicit, e.g., "Sir Gawain and the Sleeve Job"), then this book is not for you. However, I found it enjoyable and would recommend it.

Where have all the good myths gone?

A Short History of Myth - Karen Armstrong

A Short History of Myth lives up to its title but despite its brevity is well worth reading. It’s an extended introductory essay to the Canongate Myth series, several volumes of which I’ve read: Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad, Jeanette Winterson’s Weight, and A.S. Byatt’s Ragnarok, respectively, reinterpretations of The Odyssey, the Atlas myth, and the Viking Apocalypse.(1)

Armstrong asserts that myths are timeless stories that define what life is about. They answer questions such as why are we here? what is our relationship to the divine? where do we come from?, etc. They may arise from an actual event but aren’t bound by historical narrative. One of the examples Armstrong uses is Jesus Christ. As a man, it’s well established that Jesus lived in 1st century AD Palestine, claimed to be a messiah, and that the Romans executed him. As the Christ, his message became fodder for Paul’s mythologizing, transcending the historical fact of his existence. From this point of view, it’s not essential that Jesus existed. [But that’s a topic for another book and not central to what Armstrong is talking about here.]

Back to myths in general...

Myths are often characterized by a concern with death and our fear of (personal) extinction. They’re intimately connected with rituals, without which they become meaningless or (at best) entertaining stories (a la TV’s Xena). The most influential myths force their protagonists (and, thus, us) to go beyond their experiences. Myths also show us how to behave.(2) And, finally, myths reflect the higher reality of which we can only catch glimpses (in ecstatic trances or via drugs, for example). The “truth” of a myth lies in its effectiveness. As Armstrong writes, “[i]f it works, that is, if it forces us to change our minds and hearts, gives us new hope, and compels us to live more fully, it is a valid myth” (p. 10).

In the Introduction, Armstrong mentions modern society’s near total alienation from myth, which she’ll return to at the conclusion. In between, she divides mythological development into six periods:

1. Paleolithic (pre-agriculture)
2. Neolithic (agriculture)
3. Beginning of urban civilization (Sumer, etc.)
4. Axial Age
5. Post-Axial (up to the Reformation in Europe)
6. Post-Reformation Europe

Paleolithic myth(3) arose out of a desire to reconcile humanity with the violence by which they survived in the world – i.e., by hunting. Armstrong argues that in these earliest myths the “hero” was born. A person who faces the prospect of death and undergoes an arduous journey to return to his people with gifts and wisdom. She mentions Herakles and Artemis as most likely arising from this tradition. The chief divinity at this point, appears to have been a goddess figure (though this doesn’t imply that humans lived in a matriarchy, as some have argued).

Why should a goddess have become so dominant in an aggressively male society? This may be due to an unconscious resentment of the female. The goddess of Catal Huyuk gives birth eternally, but her partner, the bull, must die. Hunters risked their lives to support their women and children. The guilt and anxiety induced by hunting, combined with frustration resulting from ritual celibacy, could have been projected onto the image of a powerful woman, who demands endless bloodshed. The hunters could see that women were the source of new life; it was they – not the expendable males – who ensured the continuity of the tribe. The female thus became an awe-inspiring icon of life itself – a life that required the ceaseless sacrifice of men and animals. (p. 39)

The Agricultural Revolution didn’t displace the goddess but humans adapted their hunting myths to reflect a new understanding of their relationship with the Earth. The goddess assumed more maternal and nurturing aspects. She still represented – at times – the implacable and fatal aspects of life but she was now also a force of creation. Armstrong concludes her Neolithic chapter with the suggestion that humans were able to find a sense of optimism absent in Paleolithic myths: “The initiation at Eleusis showed that the confrontation with death led to spiritual regeneration, and was a form of human pruning…. [I]t could enable you to live more fearlessly and therefore more fully her on earth, looking death calmly in the face. Indeed, every day we are forced to die to the self we have already achieved. In the Neolithic period too, the myths and rituals of passage helped people to accept their mortality, to pass on to the next stage, and to have the courage to change and grow” (p. 57).

The advent of cities caused yet another fundamental change in myth. Humans were gaining ever greater (though still precarious) control over their destinies and growing ever more alienated from Nature. And the gods reflected that new distance. Myths arose or were adapted to celebrate and justify cities, writing, bureaucracy, and the other appurtenances of civilization. Another interesting development was the increasing prominence of human agents, as in The Epic of Gilgamesh, which challenged the traditional mythology of the Mother Goddess and asserted that it was best for gods and humans to remain apart.

The loss of the old certainties embodied in Neolithic mythology led to the spiritual crisis that ushered in the Axial Age (beginning around 800 BC). “[The Axial Age] marks the beginning of religion as we know it” (p. 79). In terms of myths, they became more introspective and often had an ethical cast. And the gods (or God in the case of the Jews) continued to become more remote. It became impossible to experience the sacred in everyday life; only through breaking down the normal consciousness could people contact the divine. In this section of the book, Armstrong reviews the varying responses China, India, Israel and the Greeks developed in response.

And their responses (including the later developments of Christianity and Islam) held true until the 16th century AD, when Europe entered the Modern Era, a chief aspect of which “was the death of mythology” (p. 119):

The Western achievement relied on the triumph of the pragmatic, scientific spirit. Efficiency was the new watchword. Everything had to work. A new idea or an invention had to be capable of rational proof and be shown to confirm to the external worlds. Unlike myth, logos must correspond to facts; it is essentially practical; it is the mode of thought we use when we want to get something done; it constantly looks ahead to achieve a greater control over our environment or to discover something fresh….

But logos had never been able to provide human begins with the sense of significance that they seemed to require. It had been myth that had given structure and meaning to life, but as modernization progressed and logosachieved such spectacular results, mythology was increasingly discredited. As early at the sixteenth century, we see more evidence of a numbing despair, a creeping mental paralysis, and a sense of impotence and rage as the old mythical way of thought crumbled and nothing new appeared to take its place. We are seeing a similar anomie today in developing countries that are still in the earlier stages of modernization (pp. 121-2).(4)

The loss of mythology has made it difficult for people to face the unspeakable, though not for want of trying. Art, music, drugs, films and more: all attempts to recapture the certitude and significance that mythology had formerly supplied. “But there is something unbalanced about this adulation. The myth of the hero was not intended to provide us with icons to admire, but was designed to tap into the vein of heroism within ourselves. Myth must lead to imitation or participation, not passive contemplation. We no longer know how to manage our mythical lives in a way that is spiritually challenging and transformative” (p. 135).

In the last few pages of the book, Armstrong calls for new myths (or – as we shall see – myth-like stories) that will help us identify with our fellow humans, realize the importance of compassion, create a spiritual attitude that challenges individual selfishness, and venerates the Earth as something more than a resource to be exploited. As she writes, “unless there is some kind of spiritual revolution that is able to keep abreast of our technological genius, we will not save our planet” (p. 137).

She also connects this extended essay to the purpose of the Canongate myth series: Using the novel as a means of achieving what myth had done for our ancestors. She likens the reading of a book to meditation since readers have to live for a while in a world outside of their lives and – in a good novel – find themselves a different person when the experience is over.

A novel, like a myth, teaches us to see the world differently; it shows us how to look into our own hearts and to see our world from a perspective that goes beyond our own self-interest. If professional religious leaders cannot instruct us in mythical lore, our artists and creative writers can perhaps step into this priestly role and bring fresh insight to our lost and damaged world (p. 149)

I would recommend taking a look at this book. It packs a lot into a small package, and there’s much that Armstrong can only assert without being able to back it up with extensive argument, but I think many of her points are defensible and much in her analysis of what’s wrong with our world, true.

1. My favorite is Weight but can recommend the other two as well.
2. This is not necessarily ethical behavior. The earliest myths are more concerned with ritual purity and preparing the listener for the afterlife, among other things. Morality – as we understand the term – would only become an integral part of mythology with the Axial Age.
3. I should mention that Armstrong’s focus in this short book is on West Asian mythology, though she’ll mention in passing other cultures.
4. I would say the “developed countries” are still attempting to cope with the modern world.

Just your standard history, not many "people"

The Hundred Years War: A People's History - Dr. David Green

This isn't a bad book about the period but I can't really recommend it. The writing is often awkward and repetitive (particularly in the first 1/3 or so of the book). It's as if the author wrote a series of papers on each of the topics he addresses but didn't polish a final draft, removing material already covered.

And despite the subtitle, there's little in the way of "people's" voices. I understand that peasants, soldiers, women didn't leave much in the way of written sources but there's a wealth of data from other sources that could have informed his chapters on each of these groups; and it's not as if he's unaware of them. Several times he raises potentially fascinating topics but goes nowhere with them. For example, in "Women and War: Power and Persecution," Green mentions the growing economic and social power women enjoyed in the first half of the 15th century (only to lose it in the second) but drops it to focus on Joan of Arc's meteoric career, though he concedes that she was in no way representative of a typical woman of any class.

Green does provide a nice, 20-plus-page bibliography that could be mined for further reading.