Monday, April 23, 2007

April 23: Shakespeare coming and going

Today is the anniversary of William Shakespeare's birth (1564) and death (1616), at least as best historians can tell. There's always been some uncertainty about the identity of the Bard of Avon, but I'll stick with the traditional historical account of his life until someone proves otherwise.

Shakespeare is an author I've read pretty thoroughly, and my Master's thesis focused on 3 of his plays (Measure for Measure, The Tempest, and Othello) so I always raise a glass to his memory on this date, at least metaphorically.

To further honor him, I'm posting three of my favorite passages. Each includes ideas that are significant to my personal world view. Whether my sympathy with the Bard's words is born of Nature or Nurture I can't fathom, but it exists nonetheless.

The first passage is from Measure for Measure, and comes in the middle of Isabella's eloquent plea to reverse a death sentence against her brother. It speaks well to the pretentiousness of self-appointed authority and the foolishness of men who, though fallible themselves, try to sit in judgement of others. Justice not tempered with mercy, is not justice at all ...

Could great men thunder
As Jove himself does, Jove would nere be quiet,
For every pelting, petty officer
Would use his heaven for thunder,
Nothing but thunder! Merciful heaven!
Thou rather with thy sharp and sulphurous bolt
Splits the unwedgeable and gnarled oak
Than the soft myrtle; but man, proud man,
Dress'd in a little brief authority,
Most ignorant of what he's most assur'd—
His glassy essence—like an angry ape,
Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven
As makes the angels weep; who, with our spleens,
Would all themsleves laugh mortal.
[Act II, scene ii, Lines 136-149]
The second comes from The Tempest, and is a lovely little piece of speech from an unlikely source. Caliban, native to the island where the action takes place, and enslaved by the play's main character, Prospero, who has been stranded there, is generally portrayed in hostile terms by the Europeans with whom he interacts. The following lines always left me with the impression that Shakespeare might have had other sympathies. The words speak to the longing for that which we can't have, and the difficulty in coming to terms with that reality — at least that's my reading.

Be not afeard, the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices
That if I then had wak'd after long sleep
Will make me sleep again; and then in dreaming
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I wak'd
I cried to dream again.
[Act III, scene ii, lines 132-140]
Finally, the third passage comes from Othello and speaks to the power of words to bewitch the listener. It is a spell that can be used to both positive and negative affect, as Othello learns tragically at the end of the play when Iago's deceptions are revealed too late. It's a cautionary tale about perception and reality, trust and betrayal that we'd all be wise to heed. We see the relevancy today as many in politics and the media attempt to twist reality to suit their purposes.

And often did beguile her of her tears,
When I did speak of some distressful stroke
That my youth suffer'd. My story being done,
She gave me for my pains a world of sighs.
She swore, i' faith, 'twas strange, 'twas passing strange;
'Twas pitiful, 'twas wondrous pitiful.
She wish'd she had not heard it, yet she wish'd
That heaven had made her such a man. She thank'd me,
And bade me, if I had a friend that lov'd her,
I should but teach him how to tell my story,
And that would woo her. Upon this heat I spake.
She lov'd me for the dangers I had pass'd,
And I lov'd her that she did pity them.
This only is the witchcraft I have us'd.
[Act I, scene iii, lines 171-184]
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