22 June 2006

Shakespeare & the Bible

Finished reading: The Bedford Companion to Shakespeare & A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Now I want to watch every film production there is of it! Any recommendations; what’s your favorite version?

Since the theme of this blog is “poetry & faith,” I thought it would be appropriate to open my Shakespeare studies with some meditations on Christianity, spirituality, and morality in the works of the Bard. I do not intend to make an apologetic here for Shakespeare’s personal faith (knowing nothing about that) nor about the exclusive, orthodox Christianity of his works (not being convinced of that), but rather to trace some relationships of his texts to Biblical truth, whether these relationships are positive or negative. This is by no means intended to be anything like comprehensive! —just a few current thoughts. I imagine, even hope, these thoughts will change throughout the summer. So, here they are. Pardon the sometimes erroneous quotes; I’m working on a train as I travel across Ireland, with only Dream ready to hand.

So here are a few topics for thought and future discussion.

1. Quotations from Scripture

Shakespeare does not often quote directly from Scripture. I do not have a thorough enough knowledge to say whether, when he does, the lines are in the mouths of clowns, educated people, aristocracy… and if they are misquoted or misused. Here’s just one example:

Dream 4.I.207-210. Bottom: “The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report what my dream was.” A typical mangling by bully Bottom; and another example of an oft-misused quote. The passage in I Cor. goes on to say: “But God hath revealed them unto us by his spirit.” So Bottom, like many people, takes it up wrong. Bottom often does that.

2. Biblical references

Beyond exact quotations, Shakespeare’s diction is heavily influenced by his familiarity with the vocabulary, syntax, and cadences of both the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer; attendance at Anglican services was mandatory during his lifetime. The Bible he would have heard every week at church was (not the King James, obviously, until 1611, only 5 years before his death) the Geneva Bible. Russ McDonald claims that the Bible was the most important of Shakespeare’s indirect sources (i.e., texts S must have read & known, but which did not supply plots or characters, etc.) The cover page of the Geneva Bible (1560) shows a map of the apostles’ journeys; Shakespeare used its places names in 12th Night (Illyria), Errors (Siracuse), Othello (Cyprus, Pontick Sea), and Julius Caesar (Phillpi) [McDonald 164]. Its tones and timbres can be heard throughout his work.

3. Doctrinal allusions

Heaven & Hell figure prominently in the plays. Whether or not Shakespeare believed in them (and he would have, if he held to either the doctrine of the official church or the banished Catholic faith), his characters certainly do. I am trying to trace whether evil characters typically ignore or flout damnation. Here are some references to Heaven & Hell:

Hamlet: Now he’s praying, now I could do it pat, and so he goes to Heaven, and thus am I revenged?
Rather nastier than we’d like of a “hero,” equivocal though he may be. Murder is not enough for Claudius; he must go to hell, too.

Macbeth said if he could be certain of the consequences of his act, he’d “jump the life to come,” i.e. forget about the afterlife and just do it here and now where he could enjoy the spoils. But he realizes even here he would suffer for his sin—then does it anyway.
Macbeth: There is the bell. Hear it not, Duncan; it is a knell that summons thee to Heaven or to Hell.
I find it strange that he doubts Duncan’s destination, seeing that his virtues are like angels and celestial trumpet blasts.
Macbeth to Banquo in absentia: Thy soul, if it find heaven, must find it out tonight.
More certain, but still that doubt about his best friend’s salvation. I suppose if he can do what he has done, against his character, conscience, duty, loyalty, and hospitality, he realizes anyone is capable of vast evil, even Duncan, even Banquo.

H & H often become metaphoric. In Dream, Hermia says of Athens that Lysander’s love, given the seeming impossibility of their union, “hath made a heaven a hell” and thus puts those two states on earth and into temporality. As many lovers have done, and always shall do, I’m sure. The presence of the loved one brings Heaven, his/her absence, Hell. Microcosm for the presence and absence of God in an absolute, eternal sense, I’m sure, given the constant marital and sexual metaphors for faith/spiritual fidelity in the Bible. Juliet, unable to discover whether Romeo is dead when Nurse comes bearing her babbled news about Tybalt, cries: “What devil art thou that dost torment me thus? This torture should be roared in dismal hell!” Romeo, hearing of his banishment, mourns that “Heaven is here, where Juliet lives, and every cat and dog and little mouse may look on her, but Romeo may not!”
Add to these the interesting fact that the ceiling over the stage was called the heaven, and the “cellarage” beneath, the hell.

Hamlet, interestingly, makes no mention of either place in his great after-life speech. He fears not the fires and pains of hell, but the dreams that may come in the sleep of death, the “something after death, that undiscovered country from who bourne no traveler returns.” If only he could have rest, his “quietus,” he might “jump” the Almighty’s canon which is fixed ‘gainst self-slaughter.

Similarly, characters often refer to providence as a guiding force. Romeo, fearing “some consequence yet hanging in the stars,” throws off his worries with “but he who has the steerage of my course direct my suit [sometimes emended to ‘sails.’].” However, some editors interpret this as a reference of the god of Love, not to the Christian God; hum.

One last doctrinal inference for today. Paulina in The Winter’s Tale seems aptly named: like St. Paul, she harps on themes of repentance, forgiveness, and faith: Stephen Orgel reasons that “the emphasis in the play’s resolution on the evidence of things not seen, the primacy of the spirit over the letter, salvation through faith—on the tenets, in short, of Pauline Christianity—[must] account for Paulina’s name” (Oxford 60). At the end, after having chided the king into 16 years of repentance, guarding him from an (adulterous, it turns out) remarriage, and essentially preserving the chastity and sanctity of the royal couple, asks Leontes to “awake your faith.” He does, and all is restored.

4. Moral “lessons”
This is the easiest to trace, and I’m sure it’s been done ad nauseum. But stop and think, for a moment, about the great moral power of a theatrical masterpiece. Isn’t it much more effective to watch the maddening, hardening, despairing results of murder than to hear “Thou shalt not murder”? Fear of Aren’t you more moved to avoid jealously and mistrust after Othello than after Sunday School? Do you not fear to be an Iago, Macbeth, Richard III, Lear, or even Hamlet more than to be a Scott Peterson, OJ Simpson, Richard Nixon, Saddam Hussein, or Prince William in his Nazi uniform? These modern figures, for all their media hype, seem remote from our everyday experiences, faults, and temptations. When we finish watching the Enron trials, the average American probably does not sense the tugging of his sinful nature towards that wrong: yet when we finish watching Macbeth, we know the depths of our own inclination, and feel that even we, honest and upright as we may be, could stoop to such a deed! If one such as he, with a strong conscience and sense of moral honesty, could do bloody murder, why not we, weakened as we are with materialism and sensuality? Shakespeare makes us beware our sinful selves, and that without platitudes.

So, just some thoughts to whet my appetite. Look for more to come in the future!

17 June 2006

Myth & Truth & Ireland

Knocknarea (Queen's Maeve's Grave)

Carrow Keel megalithic tombs

Ruins along the Gleniff horseshoe

Reading: The Bedford Companion to Shakespeare and A Midsummer Night's Dream

Since I leave tomorrow for Ireland, then over to Oxford next week to start my summer studies, it seems a good time to post the following poem. It explores some of the ideas we often talk about here: what is the relationship of myth or false religion to truth; how much essentialy connection with reality do words have; how much spiritual truth can nature show forth; is the worded truth always the best or clearest; how do the past and distance make something romantic.... Well, we haven't always talked about these, but they are undercurrents to our thought. I welcome comments and critique. Please continue to check this blog over the next two months; I plan to post thoughts, pictures, and discussions that arise from my studies and travels.

Crows over Collooney

Crows flock over Collooney—thousands of rooks
in monochrome cacophony—a sight
of cackling specks on shades of gray, a sound
of some forgotten speech. The wind tells tales
and mutters legends under ancient words
whose consonants I do not understand.

Once, a people walked who understood
the language of the sky, the speech of rooks,
the significance of swans. Their insight
exhumed the inner life. They knew the sound
that growing makes; they read the season’s tales.
The world was hieroglyphics for their words.

But we, in learning light, have lost their words.
No longer does the night call us to stand
in solstice circles, drawing wheels for rooks
to follow through a flame-lit sky, excited
by enchanting demon voices sounding
from the sea. And we have lost their tales.

Those hidden people, in ash groves, told tales
in which the wind and ocean waves had words,
had music: every mouth-round calling stood
for what it named. They knew a fly, a rook,
a swan, held human nature. Second-sight,
mythopoetic, saw earth how it sounds.

But we have lost their stories with their sounds.
More has gone than songs of trees and tales
that creatures tell. Now Autumn owns no words
without those priests to speak its song who stood
at zeniths where roots, rocks, ravines, and brooks
met and the world was one: a single sight.

Something else is granted to the sightless.
What’s past is mystery. What stories sound
and resound fainter become fairy tales
tossed on the air, just echoes, mute and wordless
on the overtones of time. A standing
stone, a crumbling cairn, and cries of rooks

around their rookery at dusk seem sights
becoming visions, sounds like ancient tales—
their wordless essence lovelier misunderstood.

- Admonit

15 June 2006

Light Verse - frivolous or worthwhile?

Read: The Awakened Heart, Gerald May
Listened to: a bit of Beethoven's 7th Symphony (through the phone, while talking to my parents who were listening to it on the radio)

Tony Crafter posted this pair of poems (the second an anagram of the first) to the Anagrammy Forum (one of my favorite haunts) today:

Asterisks and Ampersands

An author owned an *
And kept it in his den,
Where he wrote tales, which had large sales,
Of erring maids and men;
And every time he breached the point
Where stuffy censors lurk,
He called upon that * to do his dirty work!


I hate the wretched ampers&
It's rude, rash, stark & underh&
Oh how annoying when you scan
An ampers& instead of 'and'!
If I were king of all the l&
I'd decree to have it b&,
Or well & truly choked in s&,
Then drowned - the hated ampers&!

I was in the mood for light verse anyway, so I really enjoyed it. I had just bought The New Oxford Book Book of Light Verse in a used bookstore the other day. This type of poetry is not as "great" as some of the art and poetry we've discussed on the blog, but I believe that God delights in word play and silliness as well as ponderous thoughts, deep spiritual imagery, etc. After all, he gave us the creative minds to think this stuff up, and the physiology in the brain, vocal chords and diaphram to find it funny and to laugh. And I believe laughter is wholesome and healthy for body, mind, and spirit. Jesus used humor in his parables and interactions with people (see Earl Palmer's The Humor of Jesus).

What do you think is the value of light verse and humor literature, or do you simply find it a waste of time? Do you think it has anything to do with the Kingdom of God?

12 June 2006

On reading and rereading

Read: Macbeth, A Winter’s Tale, Henry V
Listened to: Vivaldi and Corelli Concerti and Sonatas
Watched: Macbeth (Ian McKellen & Judi Dench in the excellently creepy RSN production), Romeo & Juliet (Jonathan Firth & Geraldine Somerville in a luscious if much-chopped HBO version), Shakespeare in Love

In this post I guess I am raising a bunch of interesting questions and would love to see some discussion. We already asked what do you have memorized, do you memorize poetry. Now let me ask two other questions: First: If you were to recommend one book to read over and over (the “What book would you have if you were marooned on a desert island” idea), what would it be? I guess you can say The Bible if you wish, because that’s part of this discussion, but also what other books of purely human composition yield the most treasures year after year after year? Second: What are the specific values of rereading? What is lost by rereading?

I am deep into my Shakespearean assignments for this summer’s studies, so you will be seeing much about The Bard in these pages for the next two months or so. Most of the plays I’m studying just now are re-reads for me: Macbeth, R & J, Henry V, Midsummer. But nothing is lost to me in re-reading except surprise and freshness, and much is gained. I am one of those cursed with the inability to remember what I’ve read/listened to/watched until I go through it again, and sometimes again. Books stick in my head after a second reading, if at all. The few exceptions to this—books/stories/poems that stick clearly and sharply in my mind on a first reading, those from which I can almost quote lines and describe scenes with great precision—must therefore be excellent works. I often judge a work’s quality by its memorability. My ability to recall phrases, sentences, whole passages after reading a work indicates that it must be brilliantly described; perspicacious, intuitive, and insightful; psychologically plausible, etc., but it’s probably not written with the skill of the 17th century poets! Shakespeare’s writing is imminently memorable, but of such high quality that it usually takes a couple of readings for it to stick. For me anyway. And yet, his cadences are natural, while lofty, his rhymes are musical and often simple; so sometimes a line or a half line resonates for days after even a first reading. For no reason, I had “Art thou a man? Thy form proclaims thou art; thy tears are womanish, they wild acts denote the unreasonable fury of a beast” and “Aroint thee, witch!” rattling around in my brain-pan for days. Shakespeare’s work seems nearly easier to memorize than to understand! Last night I found myself musing over the prologue to R & J: “Two households, both alike in dignity, / In fair Verona where we lay our scene / from old something spring to new mutiny / and civil blood makes civil hands unclean. / From forth the fatal loins of these two foes / A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their lives / Whose misadventured piteous overthrows / Doth with their deaths bury their parents’ strife. Etc. And I find now that the process of memorizing walks hand-in-hand with the process of understanding. Reading a passage over and over in order to comprehend its meanings and shades of meanings, studying the editorial commentary (sometimes pages on a single word), learning about the etymology of the terms, seeing what OED has to say about it… these serve to fix the passage in the mind even as the stages of striving to memorize it bring about enlightenment of the meaning! I long to act in these plays, to memorize and live the parts…. One thing that struck me in Shakespeare in Love (Fiction! Fiction!) was how he apparently had all of his plays effortlessly memorized. So much so that he could play Romeo at a moment’s notice, quote all of Juliet’s lines while making love (hum), etc. Ah, to always have just the right Shakespeare quotation for just the right occasion!

But what about rereading? Why do we do it, why do we need to do it, do we do it enough, should we do it more? I said I am cursed with hardly being able to remember what I’ve read until a second or even third time around. But is that a curse? Not if I go back and back to the same best books and love them more each time. Here again is the link to Kirstin Jeffrey Johnson’s excellent articles on MacDonald; the second is about just this, about rereading Phantastes. I’m even going to quote some parts of her article, because it’s so good, and you might not take the time to read the whole thing via the link. Even if you do, reread it here!

Unraveling Phantastes
Few early Victorians were privileged enough to own many books, and a book was not simply read once and set aside. It was read and reread, the reader engaging with the text ever more deeply, each reading revealing new connections and presenting yet another journey…. Phantastes, like all books before it, expects a long-term relationship with the reader.
It is helpful when reading Phantastes to follow one theme that is noticeable early on in the tale … what it means to “die to oneself,” for instance. As this unfolds, other interwoven themes become evident, providing the next thread for the next read. The more one reads MacDonald, the more familiar one becomes with his primary themes, and the easier it is to follow their relations to each other, as well as to the books alluded to in the tale….
MacDonald points to [other] books not only to introduce them—he is also inviting the reader into a deeper conversation. As one reads the other books mentioned and then returns to MacDonald, suddenly one is part of a conversation that has been going on since God’s first story. MacDonald is responding to Tennyson responding to Blake responding to Dante, who in turn is responding to John responding to Christ, who is reminding us of the words of Isaiah, or the Psalms, or Moses. This conversation between texts is part of the Christian heritage, part of understanding who we are and who God is….
C. S. Lewis wrote that a first read reveals the plot and characters; it is in the experience of rereading that we find wisdom and strength. But be forewarned; rereading Phantastes did change his life.
—Kirstin Jeffrey Johnson

Even before reading Kirstin’s article, I had a personal rule about poetry and dense short stories: read it three times before making any final conclusions about its quality or meaning(s). Of course, some poems reveal nothing I want to pursue on the first reading, and I put them aside in favour of others. Then there are those I will never cease rereading, such as the Divine Comedy, The Prelude, Kubla Khan, Paradise Lost, Millay’s sonnets, the works of Hopkins and Herbert. I come back to these over and over and am always re-amazed.

Hilaire Belloc said of Johnson’s Rasselas: “Every man ought to read Rasselas and every wise man will read it over half a dozen times in his life. Indeed, a man would do well to read it once a year at least, for never was wisdom better put.”

With these ideas in mind, what, then, is really the value of presenting students with selections from great works, which they read once, perhaps barely understand, talk about for a few minutes or part of an hour in a class they may not be very excited about attending, and then set aside? Well, I guess the hope is that they do not set them aside forever. In our discussion about “The Canon,” what to assign in a Christian Classics class, Rosie said something like At the very least, they’ll recognize these names and titles and passages again in the future as being vaguely familiar, and maybe that will push them into further readings and rereadings. Familiarity is friendly, and often is itself and introduction to deeper relationship. Isn’t love at first sight often described as a feeling that I must have met you before, I’ve always known you, I met you in a dream? So let us teachers give our students that good dream, that haze of great literature, that one day they might step through it into the love we ourselves know to be so rewarding! That said, I have higher expectations for my classes, and hope to give more than a vague impression. I hope to encourage some rereading and deeper study of at least the most essential passages of the literature we study. Some works they will encounter in more than one class; so much the better!

Now, perhaps the most important question: What about the Bible? What about rereading the Bible? We are told to meditate on the Word of God day and night, to bind it on our foreheads, to walk about with it in our hearts. Surely these are injunctions to read it over and over and over, to memorize it either intentionally or as a by-product of living with it and in it. Some people reread the entire Bible every year, or favorite books over constantly. The values of Scripture memorization are highly extolled by many wise people, and I have found it rewarding in the past. Now I have subsided into a sort of vague knowledge of many passages, specific quotable knowledge of a sizable handful of popular verses, and a maybe-maybe-not-better-than-average idea of where to find things in the Scripture. Is this enough? How much would be enough? First-century Jewish scholars had the entire Torah memorized. I know a man who has the whole book of Proverbs in his head. The real point is this: What you reread and what you memorize becomes a part of your life. I don’t know how far to go with that. If I go around saying “Is this a dagger that I see before me,” am I more in danger of hell-fire than if I recite the 23rd Psalm? No, but which will be more edifying in the long run? And are rereading and memorizing necessarily connected? Perhaps this fast-paced media world needs to slow down and spend more time on the page, the same pages many times, delighting in the unfolding of the words through maturing years.

-- Admonit