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Happiness is not all

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Dr_Martin_Seligman.jpgIt's not every day that one's psychological analysis extracted from Hamlet finds confirmation in The New York Times.  But today appears to be that day.

Having blogged about how the paralysis Hamlet suffers because of his existential and epistemological crisis parallels my experience in the face of unyielding rejection and failure, I then read in the Times that

when animals or people were given a series of arbitrary punishments or rewards, they stopped trying to do anything constructive.  "We found that even when good things occurred that weren't earned, like nickels coming out of slot machines, it did not increase people's well-being," [Dr. Martin Seligman] said. "It produced helplessness. People gave up and became passive."
I can relate.  My experience of the world is that, regardless of my merit, effort or desert, luck - that is to say, arbitrariness - is the deciding factor in my accomplishments, both personal and professional. 

Because, as Dr. Seligman says, "accomplishment [separate from happiness] is a human desiderata in itself," my situation is not conducive to satisfaction:

"'Well-being cannot exist just in your own head,' [Dr. Seligman] writes. 'Well-being is a combination of [happiness] as well as actually having meaning, good relationships and accomplishment.'"
Accomplishment must not, therefore, always be based on luck; but achieving this happy state requires a certain redefining of "accomplishment."  For example, as a well-intentioned friend said to me of my novels, I finished them - never mind that they're unpublished and no one reads them.  My friend isn't the only one to employ this technique: in Hamlet, the Danish prince makes "readiness" his accomplishment: "the readiness is all."  The rest?  "The rest is silence."  

This coping mechanism may provide some solace, but the larger relief comes in the recognition that the paralysis is not madness: it's normal.  Well being requires certain objective external conditions that, when absent, sabotage one's enjoyment of life.

That's what the doctor says.  And, I suppose, anticipating that advice through recourse to Hamlet might be considered some sort of accomplishment.
   
(Image of Dr. Martin Seligman from Princeton Alumni Weekly)

The readiness is all

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Alexandri_marathoners.jpg
Seven months ago, I saw the (British) National Theatre's production of Hamlet in London, and it was brilliant.  The director, Nicholas Hynter, dropped the royal house of Denmark into the security apparatus of modern governments.  In addition to imbuing the play with the excitement and suspense of a political thriller, this present-day setting made the power dynamics of the play come violently alive.   

In keeping with the modernity of the production, Peter Holland - writing in the program's playbill - offered an interpretation of Hamlet's dilemma that seems tailored to today's psycho-analyzed, cosmopolitan, post-deconstructionist, alienated audience:

[Hamlet] approaches a paralysis of will that is the consequence of an impasse reached by his thinking: the more he is able to grasp his awareness of how he knows anything the less it seems possible to know anything at all.  The process of knowing makes all truth only relative . . . . Confronted with the enormity of that crisis of truth, the only response is to "Let be," to accept the impossibilities of being human and the limits of knowing and to wait patiently for whatever comes.
The quote to which Holland refers comes at the end of the play, when Horatio is exhorting Hamlet to listen to himself and decline to fight Laertes: "If your mind dislike any thing, obey it."  Hamlet responds by dismissing his feeling of foreboding, saying - in essence - we're all going to die and we don't know when, so what does it matter if it's soon?  "The readiness is all . . . Let be."

I don't know if Shakespeare ever ran a marathon.  I doubt it.

Nor do I have any insight as to whether Peter Holland ever ran a marathon, but he has a goatee, so I think it's unlikely.

Nonetheless, both men seem intimately familiar with the modern marathoner's mindset.  After months of single-minded physical labor, abstinence from late nights, booze and any semblance of vice, the marathoner surrenders to reality: the preparation is all you can do; after that, as my brother says, "anything can happen in a marathon."

In fact, the "anything" that happened to my brother during last Sunday's marathon in Prague, was a pretty damned impressive "anything."  He ran 3:15:57, which is not the kind of fate one can complain about.  Had my brother gone off to fight Laertes, the play would have had a different ending.

Not so with me.  My legs all but shattered, and I staggered across the finish line 5 hours, 9 minutes, and 54 seconds after I started.  I never ran slower in my life.  Indeed, during training, I ran 22 and 23 miles in roughly four hours; but the race was nothing like training: blisters on my toes, leg muscle cramps, and an extended stretch of walking were all present during the race and noticeably absent during training.  Had I been tapped to duel with Laertes, death would have arrived on the playwright's schedule.

While I've had enough exposure to truly rotten fates to refrain from describing mine as one about which I can complain, my situation is nonetheless dispiriting - all the more so because, from the outset, I saw running the marathon as a metaphor for how I live my life, a microcosm that reveals the whole.  I became attracted to this idea last year, when I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro and discovered that the key to reaching the peak was going slow and surrendering to the limitations imposed by the environment.  I blogged about the inspiration I drew from my mountain experience to persevere in my writing.

Unfortunately, the take-away here is less upbeat.  Months of planning and work, tireless effort, deprivation of socializing and fun, dieting, forswearing alcohol, money spent on clothes, shoes and supplements - not to mention all the acupuncturists, physiotherapists, chiropractors and masseuses who toiled to get my legs race-ready - resulted in a completely disastrous performance.  Enthusiasm, willpower, investment of resources: all easily come to nothing.

I thought I'd already learned this truism the hard way.  Six years of work, discipline and sacrifice to write novels have yielded (a) four novels on the shelf, as of yet unpublished and unread, and (b) a state of near bankruptcy.  Rejection is the only constant, and my life is so unstable that I've come to feel for rejection a wry and perverted gratitude: it's the only thing I can rely on. 

It also make me want to vomit.  Not just vomit, but curl up in a ball on the curb and stay there.  When your rock is rejection, maybe you're better off under the stone.

Of course, I'm not the first to feel this way.  I refer to the aforementioned "paralysis of will that is the consequence of an impasse reached" when "the more [I am] able to grasp [an] awareness of how [I] know[] anything the less it seems possible to know anything at all.  The process of knowing makes all truth only relative" - although I add, no less painful for being relative.  "[T]he only response is to 'Let be,' to accept the impossibilities of being human and the limits of knowing and to wait patiently for whatever comes."

While I'm constitutionally constrained from waiting patiently - the best I can muster is waiting in a state of thinly-veiled neurosis and sincerely-felt misery - I take the larger point.  "The readiness is all" because it's all we can control.  The loss of control reduces us to paralysis - metaphorically, literally or, if we're really unlucky, both.  Though being without control is an aspect of reality, living in that reality without being sabotaged by it requires a mental discipline of preferring, and prioritizing, what you can control.

That's our choice: lopsided or frozen.

And here, at last, is the metaphor I'll draw: even a lopsided runner (like myself, suffering from a biomechanical breakdown in her right leg) can finish a marathon.

(Images of Maya Alexandri and Talmon Alexandri running the Prague marathon on 8 May 2011 compiled by Maya Alexandri)

The East African Novel

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Bartle_Bull.jpg
Quick: what play involves an incestuous uncle, a sword fight to avenge the honor of a family member, a poisoned goblet of wine drunk by an unintended victim, and a pile of corpses at the play's close?  (If you said, Hamlet, that's a correct answer, but not the play about which I was thinking.)  I'm referring to Thomas Middleton's Women Beware Women, a kind of Jacobean Desperate Housewives, absent the suburbs, and plus verse. 

Women Beware Women and Hamlet, side-by-side, illustrate how playwrights of the late-Elizabethan, early-Jacobean era manipulated certain standardized or formulaic set pieces in order to craft their stories.  The fluency, eloquence and sophistication with which they maneuvered these story components, as contrasted with their originality in devising new components for the story, constituted their skill.  (Hence, Shakespeare borrowed plots from other sources, rather than making up his own.)  This mode of story telling is, in fact, quite ancient: Walter Ong describes how oral poets of Homer's time composed epic poems using "standardized formulas . . . grouped around equally standardized themes, such as the council, the gathering of the army, the challenge, the despoiling of the vanquished, the hero's shield, and so on and on."  (Orality & Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word, p. 23.)

So I felt an odd delight when I realized that, quite unconsciously, I'd been working in the same tradition on my latest novel, The Celebration Husband, which takes place in East Africa during the first three months of World War I.  Upon hearing that I'd written this novel, a friend gave me his seriously tattered-jacketed copy of Bartle Bull's Africa adventure, The White Rhino Hotel.

Reading The White Rhino Hotel, I felt an intriguing sense of recognition.  The novel contained many familiar scenarios, as if Bartle Bull and I had attended the same writing seminar and had both completed the assignment to "write a scene in the following circumstance: East Africa, nineteen-teens, go."

My novel contains: (a) a lion attack, (b) people captivated by the sight of wildlife, (c) crossing Kenya on a train, (d) riding around Kenya on a motorcycle, (e) farmers bemoaning the punishing conditions from which they are attempting to coax agricultural produce, (f) Masai and Kikuyu warriors in oppositional confrontation, (g) descriptions of bush cooking, (h) references to hunting safaris, (i) invocation of the classics, (j) a woman facing down a potential rapist, (k) a close friendship between a smart black African and a naive white colonist, and (l) arcane explanations and depictions of equipment and weaponry.

Every one of those elements appears in The White Rhino Hotel

I can think of a number of reasons for this overlap.  Bull and I might have read the same authors and texts in our research (e.g., Lord Cranworth, Elspeth Huxley, Karen Blixen, Beryl Markham are all fairly ubiquitous as sources on East Africa in the early twentieth century).  Also, these elements all correlate to regularly-occurring events in the reality of East African life between 1914 and 1921 (when The White Rhino Hotel ends), which is why they might crop up repeatedly in the relevant historical texts or stories handed down over the generations.

In short, these elements have become standard set pieces, the lion attack analogous to the Elizabethan / Jacobean sword fight.  They are (what in copyright law is referred to as) mise-en-scene: essential or stock elements of a particular genre.  See, e.g., Universal City Studios v. T-shirt Gallery, Ltd., 634 F. Supp. 1468, 1474 n.5 (S.D.N.Y. 1986).

I hadn't seen my writing from this perspective before, and - although to our novelty-centric culture, the prospect might be threatening or induce a sense of competitiveness - I found unexpectedly comforting aspects in it.  In contradistinction to the isolated novelist in a cottage in Naivasha, which I was for the duration in which I wrote The Celebration Husband, I felt myself in a tradition of storytellers captivated by East Africa in the early twentieth century, all of us sorting and reordering standardized story components of The East African Novel in our individual attempts to ignite the magic of suspension of disbelief.

In a surprising way, it felt good.

(Image of Bartle Bull and the cover of his novel, The White Rhino Hotel, from The New York Times and Fantasticfiction.co.uk respectively)

Thoughts on the staging of Henry IV, parts 1 and 2

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Roger_Allam_as_Falstaff.jpg
Thinking Shakespeare above mistakes is a mistake.  He's none less great just because someone should have asked for rewrites in certain plays at the time they were originally staged.

I don't count as "mistakes" aspects of the plays that appealed to Elizabethan audiences, but that are less suited to our modern tastes.  Rather, I'm referring to issues that arise in theatrical productions cross-culturally and across centuries.

Henry IV, parts 1 and 2 is prone to one such mistake: dead space onstage.  People onstage waiting, or staring into space, sap energy from the scenes.  Vast swaths of emptiness where the play calls for hub-bub can have the same effect.

Unfortunately, Shakespeare spring-loaded the Henry plays with this trap.  The plays include many pub and market scenes, where many people must be onstage, but only one or two (typically Falstaff and Prince Hal) are talking. 

The plays also include battle scenes where, implausibly, only two people are onstage.  Worse, the plays grind to a halt for inopportune monologues by Falstaff - e.g., his monologue on honor, just before a major battle; his monologue on sack, redundant and slowing of the already slow pace of Henry IV part 2.

These scenes simply don't work as commonly staged.  A pub containing people standing around, watching two people talk, doesn't come across as a real pub.  Where are the ribald conversations?  The games of chance?  The flirting?  Nor does a battle scene with merely two people in it work.  Where's the noise and smoke of the battle?  The movement of fighters and animals across the battlefield?  The chaos of war? 

As for Falstaff's soliloquies, the most promising way to minimize their plot-dragging tendencies is to set them in context - in the swirl of battle preparations, for example - rather than the clear the stage and ask poor Falstaff alone to bear the weight of the entire audience's expectation. 

I appreciate the exigencies of cost and the pragmatics of staging a scene so that everyone in the audience can see it.  Nonetheless, there's no point in having an enormous cast (as one must for the Henry IV plays) and keeping them backstage when they could be put to work onstage.  Nor is there any point in staging a scene that is visible to all, but compelling to none.

The pub and market scenes need real activity - waiters buzzing back and forth, patrons up to their own tricks, pub owners disciplining staff, pickpockets.  The battle scenes need real action, whether offstage in sound or onstage with other fighting or troop movement.  And Falstaff, sociable creature, needs people around him. 

Otherwise, one ends up uttering of the bulky Henry IV plays what Prince Hal cries upon mistaking Falstaff for dead: "could not all this flesh/Keep in a little life?"

(Image of Roger Allam playing Falstaff in the Shakespeare's Globe Theatre's 2010 production of Henry IV, part 1 from The Telegraph)

Shakespeare: climate change denier

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Titania&Oberon.jpgI have one question for climate change deniers: have you considered the possibility that climate change-related phenomena are the work of fairies?

Shakespeare makes a strong argument for this position in A Midsummer Night's Dream.  When confronted by her husband, Oberon, with the accusation that she's taken the mortal, Theseus, as her lover, Titania, the Queen of the Fairies, retorts:

    These are the forgeries of jealousy:
    And never, since the middle summer's spring,
    Met we . . . .
    But with thy brawls thou hast disturb'd our sport.

In Plain English: "You're nuts with jealousy, Oberon.  I never had a chance to get it on with the man because you were constantly interfering."

    Therefore the winds, piping to us in vain,
    As in revenge, have suck'd up from the sea
    Contagious fogs; which falling in the land
    Have every pelting river made so proud
    That they have overborne their continents:

IPE:  "As a consequence, the winds have blown fogs from the ocean onto the land, causing the rivers to overflow."

    The ox hath therefore stretch'd his yoke in vain,
    The ploughman lost his sweat, and the green corn
    Hath rotted ere his youth attain'd a beard;
    The fold stands empty in the drowned field,
    And crows are fatted with the murrion flock;
    The nine men's morris is fill'd up with mud,
    And the quaint mazes in the wanton green
    For lack of tread are undistinguishable:

IPE:  "The fields have been flooded, crops lost, fields untilled."

    The human mortals want their winter here;
    No night is now with hymn or carol blest:
    Therefore the moon, the governess of floods,
    Pale in her anger, washes all the air,
    That rheumatic diseases do abound:

IPE:  "The humans have ceased singing and blessing the night, so the moon is in a bad mood and causing disease to accompany the flood."

    And thorough this distemperature we see
    The seasons alter: hoary-headed frosts
    Far in the fresh lap of the crimson rose,
    And on old Hiems' thin and icy crown
    An odorous chaplet of sweet summer buds
    Is, as in mockery, set: the spring, the summer,
    The childing autumn, angry winter, change
    Their wonted liveries, and the mazed world,
    By their increase, now knows not which is which:

IPE:  "All of which disturbance is causing the seasons to change.  Frost is coming in spring, and buds are blooming in winter.  The seasons are swapping characteristics, and nobody knows which is which."

    And this same progeny of evils comes
    From our debate, from our dissension;
    We are their parents and original.

IPE:  And this climatic mess is OUR FAULT.  Because you (Oberon) and I (Titania) are having a fight, the climate is going to hell.

Shakespeare's description of current climatic events is so compelling in its accuracy that I can only  think that his diagnosis of its cause is equally astute.  Rather than perpetuating the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, shouldn't the nations of the world invest in some marital counseling for Titania and Oberon, so they can stop fighting, and we can enjoy normal seasons again?

(Image of Titania and Oberon from BBC's website)

Sonnet XX: WTF?

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Tilda_Swinton_as_Male_Orlando.jpgShakespeare's Sonnet XX confounds me.  It praises a person whose gorgeous face, heart and personality - with its absence of womanly faults - captures the narrator's passion . . . though this same person's cock checks the narrator's impulse for sexual consummation of his love.  Here's the poem:

A woman's face with nature's own hand painted,
Hast thou, the master mistress of my passion;
A woman's gentle heart, but not acquainted
With shifting change, as is false women's fashion:
An eye more bright than theirs, less false in rolling,
Gilding the object whereupon it gazeth;
A man in hue all hues in his controlling,
Which steals men's eyes and women's souls amazeth.
And for a woman wert thou first created;
Till Nature, as she wrought thee, fell a-doting,
And by addition me of thee defeated,
By adding one thing to my purpose nothing.
But since she prick'd thee out for women's pleasure,
Mine be thy love and thy love's use their treasure.

I first encountered Sonnet XX at a vulnerable moment, just before bed time, and I naturally assumed that in my exhaustion, I'd lost track of some critical explanatory phrase in the poem.  But an immediate reread suggested that the eyebrow-raising implications weren't a function of my readiness for slumberland.  Indeed, a basic Google search revealed countless others with raised eyebrows.  So provocative is Sonnet XX that Prince might have done well to set its verses to music instead of expending effort to write "Controversy."

Interestingly, more than one commentator seems to think that the poem is an admission of Shakespeare's homosexuality.  Personally, I find that theory absurd.  For starters, such speculation superimposes a patina of modern norms on Shakespeare's Elizabethan consciousness (e.g., that loving another man makes a man gay).  We barely understand how gender and sexually are socially constructed today; to project our incomplete understanding backwards 400 years is at best arrogant and at worst idiotic.

But more importantly, Sonnet XX isn't so much homosexual as it is weird.  For gay men, the love object isn't womanly; a gay male pin-up is hot because he's masculine.  Sonnet XX, on the other hand, idolizes a man with a womanly appearance - or, at a minimum, an Orlando-style androgynous appearance that appeals to men and women ("Which steals men's eyes and women's souls amazeth"). 

Moreover, unlike a homosexual man, the narrator of Sonnet XX is decidedly against sex with his beloved: the narrator is "defeated" by his adored's prick; it brings the narrator's purpose "to nothing."  Instead, the narrator urges his beloved to make love with women, while giving his heart to the narrator. 

This model of love isn't homosexual; rather, it seems to lack a modern analogy.  Same-sex love affairs in modern society aren't typically sexless.  Nor do we usually idolize the looks of one gender when they appear on the other; quite the opposite, especially in the case of men.  From Boy George, to Michael Jackson, to Jaye Davidson (who played Dil in The Crying Game), men who look like women tend to make folks uncomfortable nowadays.

In fact, the very eagerness of modern readers to class Sonnet XX with homosexual literature reflects a variety of discomfort or insecurity with the prospect of a same-sex love relationship beyond our comprehension or experience.  But while the impulse to tame the scary, irrational potentialities of sex by naming, categorizing and analyzing is a positive one, we lose the chance to recognize, explore and appreciate the breadth of human experience if we insist on incorrect classification.

Human love is vaster, more capricious and more irrepressible than Harlequin romance.  And our capacities for loving in multi-faceted and bizarre ways is among our species' the most remarkable and admirable traits.  As G.W. Bowerstock observes in a New York Review of Books review of two books exploring Greek pederasty:

The sexual life of the ancient Greeks was as variegated and inventive as its resplendent culture. It was neither consistent nor uniform.  To this day it stubbornly resists all modern ideologies and prejudices, and yet it had its own principles of decency.  In sex, as in so much else, the ancient Greeks were unique.
Sonnet XX tantalizes with its glimpse of a variegated and inventive sexual life, one neither consistent nor uniform, one that resists modern ideologies and prejudices, for Shakespeare and his Elizabethan brethren.  We might consider to what extent their sexual openness made the Greeks and the Elizabethan not merely unique, but also great.

(Image of Tilda Swinton playing Orlando from Sally Potter's website)

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