Desire vs. Law in Shakespeare, Euripides


I share today the results of an English 101 essay assignment (Composition and Literature) where my Sewanee students were to compare and contrast Euripides’s Bacchae and Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. The students were to differentiate tragedy from comedy, explore the relationship between nature and society, and determine whether they themselves had a comic or tragic vision of the world. I also wanted them to understand how authors use figurative language to capture human dramas.

Both plays are about social authority reacting badly when people follow their natural impulses, an issue that resonates with 18-year-olds.  In Bacchae the queen mother Agave denigrates her sister Semele after she gets pregnant, and in Midsummer Night’s Dream Egeus is prepared to have his daughter executed if she follows her desires rather than marrying the man he has chosen. In both plays, the authors uses supernatural figures to capture the intensity of human desire. If society doesn’t deal sensitively with this intensity, tragedy follows.

Once the students recognized the parallels between Bacchae and Midsummer, they could explore why the stories take different turns.

Euripides captures the force of human desire through the figure of Dionysus, who is the son of godly power (Zeus) and human desire (Semele). This god is celebrated by the Bacchae, cultic women followers who acknowledge his power by dancing in the mountains and drinking wine. Furious that his mother has been denigrated, Dionysus stings Agave into madness, getting her to drop her queenly respectability and join the Bacchae. In other words, she starts behaving like the sister she castigated.

Wildness has also infected Shakespeare’s characters. Even before Oberon and Puck show up with their magic desire juice, Helena, who is humiliating herself in her chase after Demetrius, reveals she has been maddened by another Greek god:

Love looks not with the eyes, but
with the mind;
And therefore is wing'd Cupid painted blind:
Nor hath Love's mind of any judgement taste;
Wings and no eyes figure unheedy haste:

Cupid has also struck Hermia, who is so in love with Lysander that she will defy her father and death.

Puck is another Cupid figure, causing first Lysander and then Demetrius to fall in love with Helena (and out of love with Hermia). He also drives the queen of the fairies to fall in love with an ass. Surveying the chaos that arises out of human desire, he concludes, “What fools these mortals be.”

I told my students to think of these mythical nature figures as metaphors for internal forces, not as independent characters. They represent that dimension within humans that cause us to act irrationally.

How does society respond to desire’s madness? Not well, according to these two plays. In addition to Agave shaming her sister’s memory, Pentheus threatens to lock up Dionysus and cut off his head. In Midsummer, meanwhile, Egeus calls for his daughter’s execution:

I beg the ancient privilege of Athens,
As she is mine, I may dispose of her:
Which shall be either to this gentleman
Or to her death, according to our law
Immediately provided in that case.

As king, Theseus is subject to the country’s laws and has no option but to go along, although he adds an option:

Hermia: But I beseech your grace that I may know
The worst that may befall me in this case,
If I refuse to wed Demetrius.
Theseus: Either to die the death or to abjure
For ever the society of men.
Therefore, fair Hermia, question your desires;
Know of your youth, examine well your blood,
Whether, if you yield not to your father's choice,
You can endure the livery of a nun,
For aye to be in shady cloister mew'd,
To live a barren sister all your life,
Chanting faint hymns to the cold fruitless moon.

While enforced chastity is better than death, it’s another attempt to subdue nature. It’s worth remembering that Theseus himself has imposed his will on Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons, dragging her from nature and into his court. “Hippolyta, I wooed thee with my sword, doing thee injury,” he tells her in his opening speech.

Nature, when thwarted, fights back, and both plays see characters fleeing from their overly rigid society into the anarchic forest of desire.

Whether a play turns out tragically or comically, then, depends on the degree to which society and human desire can be reconciled. Optimists find a middle ground more likely than do pessimists.

Now for my students. Henry, who has Lebanese roots, drew on stories from his uncle to note the aversion to women’s freedom found in many Middle Eastern nations. There are still places where a Semele who got pregnant would be killed by her family in an honor slaying, and women leaving the home to dance in the woods would not fare much better. (Women aren’t even allowed to drive in a number of these societies.) No wonder Pentheus has a meltdown when he discovers his mother has left the home.

Where Henry focused on rigid patriarchal societies, Patrick looked at societies that evolve. Mentioning how his own originally conservative view of same-sex marriage changed once he met same-sex couples, he noted that something similar occurs in Midsummer: once the lovers pair up happily, Thesus overrides Egeus’s will, bringing ancient Athenian law more into accord with human desire. Similarly, American laws concerning LGBTQ individuals are becoming more tolerant.

Jacob noted that such a compromise is offered to Theseus in Bacchae. His grandfather Cadmus and the seer Teiresias are prepared to worship Dionysus, and they urge Pentheus to join them. Having recently read Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Jacob noted that this is like people taking time off from their responsibilities to join Ken Keasey and his Merry Pranksters. In other words, they honored Dionysus on the weekends and Zeus during the week. In a healthy society, both gods must be propitiated.

Pentheus, however, is not in a healthy state, nor is Agave. When they fall under the spell of Dionysus, they engage in prurient pursuits (in his case) and violent activities (in hers). They don’t so much embrace freedom as explode from the force of repressed emotion. As Henry pointed out, citizens from repressive Middle Eastern nations visit pornographic websites at a higher rate than anyone else in the world. In our own country, the politicians who most loudly proclaim family values often have secret lovers or repressed same-sex yearnings.

So that students would see the clash between the law and desire as a real issue, not just some abstract academic query, I asked them how it showed up in their lives. I heard accounts of clashes with parents, most of which ended happily. For the most part my students are like the lovers in Midsummer, who don’t allow their rebellion to override all social checks. Lysander and Hermia, after all, are running off to get married, not to engage in promiscuous sex (although Lysander tries to jump the gun once they find themselves lost).

A darker vision would be to regard Dionysus rather than Puck as directing human emotions. When these emotions are unleashed, vandalism, fights, and rapes can ensue.

While most of the students came down on the side of nature and the rebels, Xiangrun Li of Beijing, China found himself more drawn to Pentheus and Egeus. I realized, as I followed his argument, that China’s long tradition of respect for elders makes youthful rebellion harder to countenance. The West may have a history of humanist individualism dating back to Euripides’s time (and getting a boost during Shakespeare’s), but China has a different view of community. It’s not the first time that Chinese students have expanded my vision of a literary work. (Check out how they opened my eyes to certain aspects of Edgar Allan Poe.)

Perhaps because most of my students, like me, have lived privileged lives, we are drawn more towards the comic vision than the tragic. It’s possible for us to believe that Theseus and Oberon, society and nature, see eye to eye and want the same ordered outcome. Not all cultures have that luxury.

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Trump’s Transcript & the Ministry of Truth

London’s Senate House inspired Orwell’s Ministry of Truth


The current impeachment investigation began with a whistleblower’s complaint, followed up by a transcript of a phone call between Donald Trump and the Ukrainian president. While strategically edited, the transcript nevertheless makes clear that Trump tried to shake down Ukraine for information on Joe Biden, using desperately needed military assistance as leverage. Everything we have learned from subsequent Congressional hearings confirms Trump’s extortion attempts.

Now, however, Trump is claiming that the transcript shows that he’s innocent. He’s having ”Read the Transcript!” printed on tee-shirts and insisting that Republicans repeat his assertion he did nothing wrong. We are learning the extent to which he functions as his own Ministry of Truth, at least as far as the GOP is concerned.

Of course, it helps that he has Fox News backing him up every step of the way.

The Ministry of Truth, of course, is the propaganda office of 1984’s Big Brother. Even though I’ve been applying Orwell’s masterpiece to Trump for a while, it still took me a while to grasp one of the author’s great insights: autocrats lie, not in order to persuade people, but to test them. The more outrageous the lie, the more supporters can demonstrate their loyalty.

So far, the GOP appears to be passing Trump’s test, but they’ve never been as challenged as they are at the moment. After all, anyone who isn’t absolutely brainwashed recognizes that Trump was up to.

Orwell shows loyalty tested in Big Brother’s account of the wars Oceania is conducting. The example is particularly applicable to our situation since Republicans used to champion Ukraine against Russia. Now, somehow, they’ve switched seamlessly from Eurasia to Eastasia:

Since about that time, war had been literally continuous, though strictly speaking it had not always been the same war…But to trace out the history of the whole period, to say who was fighting whom at any given moment, would have been utterly impossible, since no written record, and no spoken word, ever made mention of any other alignment than the existing one. At this moment, for example, in 1984 (if it was 1984), Oceania was at war with Eurasia and in alliance with Eastasia. In no public or private utterance was it ever admitted that the three powers had at any time been grouped along different lines. Actually, as Winston well knew, it was only four years since Oceania had been at war with Eastasia and in alliance with Eurasia. But that was merely a piece of furtive knowledge which he happened to possess because his memory was not satisfactorily under control. Officially the change of partners had never happened. Oceania was at war with Eurasia: therefore Oceania had always been at war with Eurasia. The enemy of the moment always represented absolute evil, and it followed that any past or future agreement with him was impossible.

I believe it is at this point in the novel that we first hear the phrase “doublethink,” also called “reality control.”

Particularly frightening for us is how others have picked up Trump’s technique. As we saw recently with Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, it’s no longer just the president who claims he didn’t say things we just witnessed him saying. Winston Smith regards as “more terrifying than mere torture and death” the way the Party can “thrust its hand into the past and say of this or that event, IT NEVER HAPPENED”:

[I]f all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed–if all records told the same tale–then the lie passed into history and became truth. ‘Who controls the past,’ ran the Party slogan, ‘controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.’ And yet the past, though of its nature alterable, never had been altered. Whatever was true now was true from everlasting to everlasting. It was quite simple. All that was needed was an unending series of victories over your own memory.

Or in the case of the transcript, a victory over our own eyes.

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Will Trump Turn Us into Goodman Brown?

Goya, Witches’ Sabbath

Professor of Constitutional Law Garrett Epps has applied one of my favorite Nathaniel Hawthorne stories to our current political predicament. As Donald Trump shreds one democratic norm after another while steering us towards autocracy, could we become disillusioned Goodman Browns? Will we no long believe in the American promise? Will our perspective darken and our dying hour be one of gloom?

In “Young Goodman Brown,” the protagonist abandons his pink-ribboned wife, allegorically named Faith, to look at the dark side of humanity. Encountering the devil as he plunges into the forest, he discovers that all the supposedly saintly people around him are hopelessly corrupt.

And not only his contemporaries. Looking back through history, he discovers that his forebears have participated in Quaker beatings, Indian massacres, and other atrocities.

Epps quotes the passage where Brown learns

how hoary-bearded elders of the church have whispered wanton words to the young maids of their households; how many a woman, eager for widows’ weeds, has given her husband a drink at bedtime and let him sleep his last sleep in her bosom; how beardless youths have made haste to inherit their fathers’ wealth; and how fair damsels—blush not, sweet ones—have dug little graves in the garden, and bidden me, the sole guest to an infant’s funeral … It shall be yours to penetrate, in every bosom, the deep mystery of sin, the fountain of all wicked arts, and which inexhaustibly supplies more evil impulses than human power—than my power at its utmost—can make manifest in deeds. And now, my children, look upon each other.

Epps observes that

Hawthorne is appropriate Halloween reading, and especially this year: American society is living through its Goodman Brown moment, a moment when many of the norms we have been taught to admire have been revealed as a shell game for suckers. As Trumpism took hold in the nation in 2015, it was regarded as a kind of temporary madness. But time has revealed that this vulgar spirit is no aberration. It was there all along; the goodly veneer was the lie.

He then provides a series of instances:

Consider the devolution of Bill Barr, from an “institutionalist” who would protect the Department of Justice to a servant of Donald Trump. Consider the two dozen House Republicans who used physical force to disrupt their own body rather than allow government officials to testify to what they know about President Trump—because to follow the rules of the House, and the strictures of national security, would threaten their party’s grasp on power. Consider the white evangelical leaders who prated to the nation for a generation about character and chastity and “Judeo-Christian morality,” but who now bless Trump as a leader. Consider, if more evidence is needed, the unforgettable moment at the Capitol on September 27, 2018, when Brett Kavanaugh dropped forever the mask of the “independent judge” to stand proudly forth as a partisan figure promising vengeance against his enemies.

In Hawthorne’s story, Brown awakens and wonders whether the night’s journey was all a dream. Epps asks whether we will wonder the same as we look back at the Trump years. Unfortunately, dream or not, Brown never regains the innocent “faith” he once had. Could that be our fate as well, Epps wonders:

Assume new national leadership in 2021. What leader worth voting for would negotiate with Mitch McConnell or Kevin McCarthy and believe either will keep his word; what sane president would turn over sensitive documents to Republican-led committees; what Democratic president would simply accept that the federal courts are now the property of the opposition, and submit issues of national policy to them, in the confidence of receiving a fair shake? After this night in the forest, can I, or any sane person, ever believe in these people and institutions again?

Or as Hawthorne puts it:

But, alas! it was a dream of evil omen for young Goodman Brown. A stern, a sad, a darkly meditative, a distrustful, if not a desperate man, did he become, from the night of that fearful dream. On the Sabbath-day, when the congregation were singing a holy psalm, he could not listen, because an anthem of sin rushed loudly upon his ear, and drowned all the blessed strain. When the minister spoke from the pulpit, with power and fervid eloquence, and with his hand on the open Bible, of the sacred truths of our religion, and of saint-like lives and triumphant deaths, and of future bliss or misery unutterable, then did Goodman Brown turn pale, dreading lest the roof should thunder down upon the gray blasphemer and his hearers. Often, awaking suddenly at midnight, he shrank from the bosom of Faith, and at morning or eventide, when the family knelt down at prayer, he scowled, and muttered to himself, and gazed sternly at his wife, and turned away.

Dark though our situation is, I see a ray of hope. Because America has seesawed between optimism and disillusion throughout its history, we may become optimistic once again. Optimism, after all, is one of America’s defining characteristics.

Europeans, who have a longer and bloodier history, sometimes shake their heads at what they see as our naïve hopefulness, regarding us almost as adolescents. Yet they find something engaging about it as well.  Although, like adolescents, we sometimes come to see everything as phony (to quote Holden), like adolescents we also demonstrate remarkable resilience.

That one of our greatest authors described our double nature so well almost 200 years ago shows that it is built into our very core. Looking back, Hawthorne saw John Winthrop proclaiming a “city on a hill” in the new world, even as he also described America failing to live up to the promise. Each generation of Americans has grappled with the battle between faith and disillusion, whether the occasion was slavery, Indian wars, anti-immigrant fever, American expansionism, Jim Crowe, recession and depression, etc., etc.

I teach “Young Goodman Brown” in my American fantasy course because it points to a dark phantasmagorical strain that runs from Hawthorne and Poe to Charles Chestnutt, Henry James (Turn of the Screw), H. P. Lovecraft, Stephen King, George Martin and beyond. It is the coin side of America’s light fantasy tradition, which includes the Jack tales, the Paul Bunyan tales, the Oz books, Walt Disney, and D.C. and Marvel comics. The dark side is always hovering at the edges of the light side and vice versa.

In short, Epps is not wrong when he uses “Young Goodman Brown” to predict what we can expect in a post-Trump America. It’s just that, if history is any guide, Brown doesn’t stay gloomy forever.

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Verbal Barbs in Comedies of Remarriage

Dunne and Grant in The Awful Truth


Today in my Feuding Couples Comedy course I will be looking at screwball comedies from the 1930s and 1940s. Continuing with my contention that feuding masks fears of getting hurt in relationships, I look at the anxieties underlying It Happened One Night, Bringing Up Baby, The Awful Truth, His Girl Friday, The Philadelphia Story, The Lady Eve, and Adam’s Rib.

Philosopher Stanley Cavell describes these films as “comedies of remarriage,” which serves to emphasize an important dimension to several them. Awful Truth, Girl Friday, Philadelphia Story, Lady Eve, and Adam’s Rib all involve divorced or about-to-be-divorced partners falling back in love, and the thin line that must be walked is a version of one that the 17th century walked as well: institutional marriage may be suffocating but unregulated sex isn’t the answer.

It Happened One Night and Bringing Up Baby don’t involve remarriage but they do show the protagonists escaping the prospect of deadly marriages. All seven of the films feature non-stop battles.

John Wilmot, the notorious 17th century libertine, captures the plot line that one finds in many of these comedies. Speaking of the uncertainties of courtship and the “dull delights” of marriage, he writes,

But we, poor slaves to hope and fear,
     Are never of our joys secure;
They lessen still as they draw near
     And none but dull delights endure. ("The Fall")

The drama is particularly pronounced in Awful Truth. The film opens with Jerry (Cary Grant) returning home from a (hinted at) adulterous liaison. His wife, however, has also been out with her piano teacher, although she claims it was innocent. In any event, marriage seems to hold them back and, while waiting for their divorce to become final, they try out other partners.

No one measures up, however, and in the end they make their way back to each other. In a final reconciliation scene that features a door between their separate bedrooms that won’t stay closed, there’s this interchange:

Lucy: No more doubts?…No more being…?
Jerry: Except, uh…
Lucy: Except what?
Jerry: Well, there’s only one thing that bothers me.
Lucy: What?
Jerry: [the door opens] This darn lock.
Lucy: Oh, is that all?

The door at this juncture stands in for marriage, locking them into dull delights. The film, however, momentarily finds a resolution. With their divorce scheduled to take place the next day, they bed down together exactly at midnight—which is to say, at the only possible time when they can be simultaneously married and unmarried. In this way, Awful Truth skirts Hollywood’s censorship code, which didn’t allow films to justify sex outside of marriage.

I compare this to other feuding couple comedy resolutions. In Aphra Behn’s Rover, which I discussed last week, Hellena insists on marriage because of the penalties for unmarried women. However, to make sure the marriage knot doesn’t become a “hangman’s noose” (Willmore’s phrase), she promises that their marriage will have all the unpredictability of courtship. No dull delights for them.

And then there’s His Girl Friday, in which ace reporter Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell) divorces editor Walter Burns (Cary Grant) because she wants to settle down and “be a woman.” In the end, however, they reunite because her tempestuous (albeit frustrating) life with Burns is more exciting than any conventional marriage.

The same is true of Tracy Lord (Katharine Hepburn) and C.K. Dexter Havens (Cary Grant) in Philadelphia Story. Her other options, in this case, are a status-seeking “man of the people” and a worshipful writer (Mike Connor, played by Jimmy Stewart). Neither can live up to the liveliness of a Grant-Hepburn remarriage.

Some background on Hepburn is useful here. By the late 1930s, after her character overwhelms and humiliates a timorous Grant in Bringing Up Baby, the actress had become “box office poison.” Audiences actively loathed her, and Hepburn, figuring her screen career was over, returned to the stage.

The problem was emasculation fears. The Great Depression was already undermining men’s sense of self-respect and Hepburn didn’t make things any easier. To be sure, comedy can sometimes help audiences cope with such fears since we laugh at what makes us anxious. That’s why Howard Hawks, a man’s man if ever there was one (he hunted with Hemingway, flew planes, and drove fast cars), put strong women into his films for comic purposes. We are supposed to laugh at the scene where Hepburn forces Grant into a woman’s frilly bathrobe.

But if the anxieties are too great, comedy can’t handle them and they just make viewers painfully uncomfortable, which is what happened in 1938. Audiences preferred unthreatening females such as (to note the two leading female box office figures of the time) Shirley Temple and Judy Garland.

Fortunately for her, Hepburn had Howard Hughes in her corner, which is how she got cast in Philadelphia Story. She still had to win over audiences, however, and the film can be seen as a Hepburn reclamation project. This was accomplished through three steps: knock Hepburn down a peg, show that she can be good humored about it, and then argue that she should be regarded differently than other Hollywood actresses.

She is certainly knocked down. In the opening scene, right after she symbolically emasculates Grant by breaking one of his golf clubs over her knee, he considers punching her but then settles for shoving her in face. This male revenge fantasy reminds me of the interchange between Peter Warne (Clark Gable) and Claudette Colbert’s father near the end of It Happened One Night

Alexander Andrews: Oh, er, do you mind if I ask you a question, frankly? Do you love my daughter?
Peter Warne: Any guy that’d fall in love with your daughter ought to have his head examined.
Andrews: Now that’s an evasion!
Warne: She picked herself a perfect running mate – King Westley – the pill of the century! What she needs is a guy that’d take a sock at her once a day, whether it’s coming to her or not. If you had half the brains you’re supposed to have, you’d done it yourself, long ago.
Andrews: Do you love her?
Warne: A normal human being couldn’t live under the same roof with her without going nutty! She’s my idea of nothing!
Andrews: I asked you a simple question! Do you love her?
Warne: YES! But don’t hold that against me, I’m a little screwy myself!

Comedy, however, cannot countenance serious violence, at least in the 1930s. (There’s plenty of violence in the feuding couples comedies War of the Roses and the Pitt-Jolie Mr. and Mrs. Smith.) In the Depression-era version of the genre, most aggression is verbal, which gives women a more even playing field. Hepburn doesn’t always get this level field, however, since the rehabilitation project requires that she undergo some humiliation. Thus we are treated to excoriating put-downs like this one from Grant:

You could be the finest woman in the world if you could just learn to have some regard for human frailty. If only you’d slip a little sometime. But I guess that’s hopeless. Your sense of inner divinity won’t allow that.

Her father also rips her apart later in the film.

Hepburn, however, shows that she can take a verbal punch, that she’s human, and that she’s not afraid to admit when she’s wrong. As a result, she is standing tall at film’s end.

Furthermore, because of her resilience, we are told to put her in a different category. “She’s no ordinary woman,” Stewart says to Grant at one point. “She’s sort of like a queen, a radiant queen, and you can’t treat her like other women.” Audiences agreed and Hepburn made her legendary comeback, winning three more Oscars in the subsequent decades.

Feuding couples comedy in the 1930s didn’t deal only with emasculation. An electorate furious at the Great Depression and the apparent death of the American dream had embraced a kind of anarchy in the early 1930s, including heightened levels of sex (see Mae West). By 1934, however, women were more economically dependent on men and people in general wanted more stability. Furthermore, religious boycotts and censorship-happy legislators forced Hollywood to clean up its act. Sex could only be hinted at and interactions between the genders got transmuted to the verbal realm.

Note, for instance, the elaborate dance that Frank Capra does with the Hayes Code in It Happened One Night. Forced for financial reasons to share a room with Colbert, Gable sets up a bedspread between the two beds (the “walls of Jericho”) and then, to get Colbert to retreat, does a striptease—only unlike most men, he starts with his shoes, at which point she scurries behind the sheet. (On their wedding night, we hear a trumpet blast, a sign that the walls of Jericho have come tumbling down.)

Most of their erotic back and forth, however, takes the form of their squabbling. How can their close contact be interpreted as lewd when they’re arguing all the time? As is the way with this genre, their fighting conveys the intensity of their attraction.

When Hollywood abandoned its code in the 1960s, actual sex often took the place of talk. Yet the erotic charge in verbal barbs wasn’t totally abandoned, and in the Nora Ephron comedies of the 1980s and 1990s (most starring Meg Ryan), 1930s repartee made a comeback. I’ll talk about that in a future class.

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Standing Beside Us, Even As We Grieve

William-Adolphe Bouguereau, All Souls’ Day

All Souls’ Sunday

For All Souls’ Sunday (also know as All Saints’ Sunday) I post one of Malcolm Guite’s remarkable sonnets. I’ve shared several of Guite’s poems over the years, and for today’s essay dove into his Wikipedia entry to discover more about him. I learned that he is an Anglican priest, a singer-songwriter, and an academic who sees his poetry and his Christianity as inextricably entwined.

Although Guite strayed from his religious upbringing in college by falling under the secular spell of B. F. Skinner’s psychological behaviorism, Becket’s theatre of the absurd, and Sartre’s existentialism, he returned to Christianity after his encounter with John Keats and Percy Shelley. The beauty of their verse inspired him to become a poet, and one reviewer has written of him, “Guite helps us see clearly and deeply how poetry allows us to know truth in a different but complementary way to propositional, rational argument.”

The poet says he has been most influenced by Seamus Heaney, T. S. Eliot, and George Herbert, and he cites Herbert’s “Bitter-Sweet” as one of his favorite poems:

Ah, my dear angry Lord,
Since thou dost love, yet strike;
Cast down, yet help afford;
Sure I will do the like.

I will complain, yet praise;
I will bewail, approve;
And all my sour-sweet days
I will lament and love.

Like Herbert, Guite practices theology through poetry. (See my post on this Anglican practice here.) About “Bitter-Sweet,” Guite writes that

what I see Herbert saying in that poem is that we take our passions, and sometimes our faults and our brokenness and our stains, and we let God anneal [slowly cooling hot glass, thereby making it durable] his story. So there’s some point in which we become a window of grace.

The explanation helps us understand “All Souls,” in which we receive Christ’s reflected light from souls we never knew, and also from souls that we “shunned and shamed.”  Guite  assures us,

They stand beside us even as we grieve,
The lone and left behind whom no one claimed,
Unnumbered multitudes…

Although they are “plain in our sight and far beyond our seeing,” Christ “weaves them with us in the web of being.”

All Souls

Though Satan breaks our dark glass into shards
Each shard still shines with Christ’s reflected light,
It glances from the eyes, kindles the words
Of all his unknown saints. The dark is bright
With quiet lives and steady lights undimmed,
The witness of the ones we shunned and shamed.
Plain in our sight and far beyond our seeing
He weaves them with us in the web of being
They stand beside us even as we grieve,
The lone and left behind whom no one claimed,
Unnumbered multitudes, he lifts above
The shadow of the gibbet and the grave,
To triumph where all saints are known and named;
The gathered glories of His wounded love.
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A Day for Remembering

Henry Alexander Bowker, The Doubt: “Can These Dry Bones Live?”

Friday – All Souls’ Day

In memory of the beautiful souls we have lost, including my oldest son and my father. Each had virtues that shone in life. Each lives on in our hearts.

An Epitaph on My Own Friend

By Robert Burns

An honest man here lies at rest,
As e’er God with His image blest:
The friend of man, the friend of truth;
The friend of age, and guide of youth:
Few hearts like his, with virtue warm’d,
Few heads with knowledge so inform’d:
If there’s another world, he lives in bliss;
If there is none, he made the best of this.
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Check Out the Bard for Halloween

Fuseli, Hamlet and the Ghost

Thursday – Halloween

I reprint today a post on Shakespeare’s ghosts that I periodically run on Halloween . It’s worth noting that Shakespeare’s most important audience for his late plays was James I, who was fascinated by the supernatural. May your doorways be filled with shrieking and squealing ghosts.

Today, as you certainly know if you are an American with children, is Halloween, the holiday that has evolved out of All Hallow’s Eve.  If you are a child, it is a day when you have special license to eat all the candy that you can gather from neighbors.  If you are older, you get to tap into your alter ego (or eggo).

To honor the holiday, I went rummaging through Shakespeare to find appropriate passages in Shakespeare.

Warning: they are very scary.

There’s a great one in Julius Caesar, where Caesar’s wife Calpurnia warns him of danger signs:

Caesar, I never stood on ceremonies,
Yet now they fright me. There is one within,
Besides the things that we have heard and seen,
Recounts most horrid sights seen by the watch.
A lioness hath whelped in the streets;
And graves have yawn’d, and yielded up their dead;
Fierce fiery warriors fought upon the clouds,
In ranks and squadrons and right form of war,
Which drizzled blood upon the Capitol;
The noise of battle hurtled in the air,
Horses did neigh, and dying men did groan,
And ghosts did shriek and squeal about the streets.
O Caesar! these things are beyond all use,
And I do fear them.

These particular ghosts made such an impression on Shakespeare that he refers to them again in Hamlet.The passage occurs after Horatio has seen old Hamlet’s ghost:

In the most high and palmy state of Rome,
A little ere the mightiest Julius fell,
The graves stood tenantless and the sheeted dead
Did squeak and gibber in the Roman streets:
As stars with trains of fire and dews of blood,
Disasters in the sun; and the moist star,
Upon whose influence Neptune’s empire stands,
Was sick almost to doomsday with eclipse:
And even the like precurse of fierce events,
As harbingers preceding still the fates
And prologue to the omen coming on,
Have heaven and earth together demonstrated
Unto our climatures and countrymen—

Macbeth has a reaction to Banquo’s ghost that many a child hopes for when he or she dons a scary mask:

Avaunt! and quit my sight! let the earth hide thee!
Thy bones are marrowless, thy blood is cold;
Thou hast no speculation [eyeballs] in those eyes
Which thou dost glare with!

And then there are those ghosts that Puck mentions:

My fairy lord, this must be done with haste,
For night’s swift dragons cut the clouds full fast,
And yonder shines Aurora’s harbinger;
At whose approach, ghosts, wandering here and there,
Troop home to churchyards: damned spirits all,
That in crossways and floods have burial,
Already to their wormy beds are gone;
For fear lest day should look their shames upon,
They willfully themselves exile from light
And must for aye consort with black-brow’d night.

These passages probably hit Renaissance audiences hard since Shakespeare seems to go out of his way to provide reassurance following each one. Oberon reminds Puck that “we are spirits of a different sort,” and Caesar replies to Calpurnia with the memorable passage,

Cowards die many times before their deaths;
The valiant never taste of death but once.

Lady Macbeth tries to use common sense:

Why do you make such faces? When all’s done,
You look but on a stool.

Marcellus, meanwhile, consoles Horatio with the belief note that, on Easter, cocks crow all night long so that the dead dare not show their faces:

Some say that ever ‘gainst that season comes
Wherein our Savior’s birth is celebrated,
The bird of dawning singeth all night long:
And then, they say, no spirit dares stir abroad;
The nights are wholesome; then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallow’d and so gracious is the time.

Happy Halloween.

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Feuding Beats Shrew-Taming

Taylor and Burton in Taming of the Shrew


Here’s a follow-up to some remarks I made yesterday on Taming of the Shrew and Much Ado about Nothing. Not being a Renaissance scholar, I’m not writing from a position of expertise, but it appears that Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew challenged but didn’t entirely break free of the misogynist shrew dramas that preceded it. The breakthrough came with Much Ado about Nothing, which launched what I call the feuding couples comedy.

The Bedford Shakespeare tells us about one of the predecessors, “A Merry Jest of a Shrewd and Curst Wife Lapped in Morel’s Skin for her Good Behavior.” In it, “the shrew-tamer kills a horse, strips and salts the hide, beats his wife until she bleeds, and then wraps her ‘torn’ body in the salted skin.”

Merry jest indeed. When I told my class about Hobbes’s theory of laughter—we laugh to assert our superiority over others—a classic example would be husbands laughing at such stories to air hurt feelings and fantasize about revenge.

What Petruchio does to Kate is not this bad although depriving someone of food and sleep is bad enough. But Kate at least gets to speak for herself, and her initial interchange with Petruchio is not unlike that between Benedick and Beatrice. Compare them:

Petruchio: Myself am moved to woo thee for my wife.
Katharina: Moved! in good time: let him that moved you hither
Remove you hence: I knew you at the first
You were a moveable.
Petruchio: Why, what’s a moveable?
Katharina: A join’d-stool.
Petruchio: Thou hast hit it: come, sit on me.
Katharina: Asses are made to bear, and so are you.
Petruchio: Women are made to bear, and so are you.
Katharina: No such jade as you, if me you mean.
Petruchio: Alas! good Kate, I will not burden thee;
For, knowing thee to be but young and light–
Katharina: Too light for such a swain as you to catch;
And yet as heavy as my weight should be.
Petruchio: Should be! should–buzz!
Katharina: Well ta’en, and like a buzzard.
Petruchio: O slow-wing’d turtle! shall a buzzard take thee?
Katharina: Ay, for a turtle, as he takes a buzzard.
Petruchio: Come, come, you wasp; i’ faith, you are too angry.
Katharina: If I be waspish, best beware my sting.
Petruchio: My remedy is then, to pluck it out.
Katharina: Ay, if the fool could find it where it lies,
Petruchio: Who knows not where a wasp does
wear his sting? In his tail.
Katharina: In his tongue.
Petruchio: Whose tongue?
Katharina: Yours, if you talk of tails: and so farewell.

And now Beatrice and Benedick:

Beatrice: I wonder that you will still be talking, Signior
Benedick: nobody marks you.
Benedick: What, my dear Lady Disdain! are you yet living?Beatrice: Is it possible disdain should die while she hath such meet food to feed it as Signior Benedick? Courtesy itself must convert to disdain, if you come
in her presence.
Benedick: Then is courtesy a turncoat. But it is certain I am loved of all ladies, only you excepted: and I would I could find in my heart that I had not a hard heart; for, truly, I love none.
Beatrice: A dear happiness to women: they would else have been troubled with a pernicious suitor. I thank God and my cold blood, I am of your humour for that: I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow than a man swear he loves me.
Benedick: God keep your ladyship still in that mind! so some gentleman or other shall ‘scape a predestinate scratched face.
Beatrice: Scratching could not make it worse, an ’twere such a face as yours were.
Benedick: Well, you are a rare parrot-teacher.
Beatrice: A bird of my tongue is better than a beast of yours.
Benedick: I would my horse had the speed of your tongue, and so good a continuer. But keep your way, i’ God’s name; I have done.

Modern directors would rather reading Taming of the Shrew as a feuding couples comedy, believing that Kate is not actually surrendering when she offers to put her hand beneath Petruchio’s foot. That’s because they cannot imagine Shakespeare surrendering to the shrew-taming tradition. After all, does he not manage to transcend tradition time and again? As Stephen Greenblatt points out, Shakespeare’s greatness lies partly in his ability to make every character three-dimensional. How can he possibly allow Kate to dwindle to a two-dimensional prop in a misogynist revenge fantasy?

However one reads Taming of the Shrew, Beatrice occupies a very different position at the end of Much Ado than Kate. Their final interchange is filled with affectionate sarcasm:

Benedick: Come, I will have thee; but, by this light, I take thee for pity.
Beatrice:I would not deny you; but, by this good day, I yield upon great persuasion; and partly to save your life, for I was told you were in a consumption.
Benedick: Peace! I will stop your mouth. (Kisses her)

I like to think that Much Ado paved the way for John Fletcher’s The Woman’s Prize or The Tamer Tamed, which he wrote as a sequel 20 years after Taming of the Shrew. In that one, Petruchio’s supposedly mild second wife (Kate has died) undertakes a Lysistrata-like sex strike, bringing Petruchio to his knees. At times she describes herself as a falcon that has slipped the harness and that it is she who now wears the pants in the family.

She has an answer for every one of his subsequent maneuvers until he finally feels compelled to fake his own death. Even this doesn’t elicit the response he wants as he is treated to further insults. She doesn’t lament his loss but the fact that, while alive, he lived a “poore unmanly wretched foolish life.”

In the end, they reconcile. He promises to give up his tyranny and she in turn agrees to dedicate her life “in service to your pleasure.”

Maria: I have done my worst, and have my end, for
From this hour make me what you please: I have tamed ye
And now am vowed your servant: Look not strangely,
Nor fear what I say to you. Dare you kiss me?
Thus I begin my new love.
Petruchio: Once again?
Maria: With all my heart.
Petruchio: Once again Maria. O Gentlemen, I know not where I am.
Sophia: Get ye to bed then: there you’ll quickly know sir.
Petruchio:. Never no more your old tricks?
Maria: Never sir.
Petruchio: You shall not need, for as I have a faith
No cause shall give occasion.
Maria: As I am honest,
And as I am a maid yet, all my life
From this hour since, since ye make so free profession,
I dedicate in service to your pleasure.

One has a slightly different reconciliation between Hellena and Willmore in Aphra Behn’s Rover, perhaps because the author is a woman. Willmore worries that marriage will shackle him, and Hellena, while having her own fears on that score, nevertheless knows she’ll pay a social price for sex outside marriage. He proposes after she convinces him that she will be just as amorous and unpredictable as a wife as she is as a lover, guaranteeing that their marriage will never stagnate. Here’s their final interchange:

Willmore: Nay, if we part so, let me die like a Bird upon a Bough, at the Sheriff’s Charge. By Heaven, both the Indies shall not buy thee from me. I adore thy Humour and will marry thee, and we are so of one Humour, it must be a Bargain—give me thy Hand—[Kisses her hand.] And now let the blind ones (Love and Fortune) do their worst.
Hellena: Why, God-a-mercy, Captain!
Willmore: But harkye—The Bargain is now made; but is it not fit we should know each other’s Names? That when we have Reason to curse one another hereafter, and People ask me who ’tis I give to the Devil, I may at least be able to tell what Family you came of.
Hellena: Good reason, Captain; and where I have cause, (as I doubt not but I shall have plentiful) that I may know at whom to throw my—Blessings—I beseech ye your Name.
Willmore: I am call’d Robert the Constant.
Hellena: A very fine Name! pray was it your Faulkner or Butler that christen’d you? Do they not use to whistle when then call you?
Willmore: I hope you have a better, that a Man may name without crossing himself, you are so merry with mine.
Hellena: I am call’d Hellena the Inconstant.

That’s an ending worthy of The Awful Truth, His Girl Friday, or The Philadelphia Story, which we’ll be studying next week. The shrew-taming story has come a long way.

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Feuding Couples Comedy

Branagh and Thompson in Much Ado about Nothing


Yesterday I began my four-week Lifelong Learning course on “Feuding Couples Comedies.” I report today on the first session, where I focused on comedies from the 17th century, especially Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew (1592) and Much Ado about Nothing (1598-99) and Aphra Behn’s Rover (1977).

Before turning to the works, I gave the class a dash of genre theory along with some psychological theories about why we laugh. Feuding Couples Comedy (FCC),  I noted, is a subgenre of romantic comedy. Rom-Coms necessarily feature conflict (rejection, jealousy, humiliation), but FCCs turn the intensity up to 11. There is not just misunderstanding, identity confusion, or bad timing but active battle. Sometimes, as in films like War of the Roses and Pitt and Jolie’s Mr. and Mrs. Smith, houses are destroyed.

For theories of laughter, I drew on Thomas Hobbes, who sees laughter as a struggle for dominance (we laugh at others as a sign of superiority); the Earl of Shaftesbury, who regards it as a desire for fellow feeling (we laugh to create bonds); and Sigmund Freud, who sees laughter as means of coping with sexual anxiety (we laugh to release nervous tension).

I started with Taming of the Shrew, which I argued is not an FCC, but then moved on to Much Ado about Nothing, which is the the genre’s quintessential example. As I see it, in an FCC the male and female protagonists must spar on more or less equal ground and the drama cannot conclude with an abject surrender. In their Petruchio and Kate’s opening confrontation, the play appears a promising FCC candidates, but Petruchio wields too much power for the contest to remain balanced.

To be sure, there are various intricate theories about how Kate does not entirely surrender to her husband. Some argue that her final capitulation is feigned, others that she’s actually in league with her husband. But one can just as convincingly argue that she’s suffering from Stockholm Syndrome after having been subjected to sleep and food deprivation and incessant reality altering. In any event, in the end she’s not standing as tall as (to cite the other plays I am examining) Much Ado’s Beatrice, John Fletcher’s Maria (The Woman’s Prize or The Tamer Tamed), Aphra Behn’s Helena (The Rover), Congreve’s Millamant (Way of the World), Shaw’s Eliza Doolittle (Pygmalion), or Albee’s Martha (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?).

I’ve set up the course to alternate between theatre and film. Next week, we’ll be looking at those battling couples in 1930s and 1940s screwball comedy. His Girl Friday is my favorite of the lot but I’m also fond of It Happened One Night, The Awful Truth, The Philadelphia Story, The Lady Eve, and Adam’s Rib. While customs have changed, the relationship anxieties have remained, just as they are roughly the same in late 20th and early 20th century FCCs.

As long as relationships resemble emotional minefields, the genre will remain relevant. And we will continue to fall in love with Beatrice and Benedick.

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