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Well, it’s over. The Mueller Report is an unmitigated disaster, an own goal that will put Donald Trump back in the White House in 2020. Sure, there are still those true believers out there demanding to see the full report, instead of Trump’s hand-picked Attorney General’s interpretation of it. Maybe these people have a case to make, but at this point they’re just shouting into the wind.

None of this changes the basic facts, of course. The Russians saw in Trump a man they could manipulate, flatter, and bribe into giving them whatever they want. They set about breaking our laws to help Trump win. And the evidence shows they weren’t shy about letting Trump know their intentions. Why would they be?

And the Trump campaign knew. Papadopoulos knew. Trump Jr, Kushner, and Manafort knew. Carter Page knew. Roger Stone knew. KT McFarland knew. And Michael Flynn knew, when he reassured the Russians that sanctions relief was, indeed, coming.

Knowing all this, Trump and his minions denied, obfuscated, and blocked at every turn any revelation that the Russians were, in fact, interfering in the election on Trump’s behalf. Then, when Flynn got caught with his hand in the cookie jar, Trump (knowing full well that Flynn was acting anything-but-alone) called on his FBI head to lay off. When Comey wouldn’t lay off, Trump fired him. But all that’s just fine.

I’ve never been a big supporter of the idea that the Russians are directly responsible for Trump. Frankly, the American people are plenty capable of electing a narcissistic racist ignoramus all on their own. After all, the American people are generally big and stupid, and as JK Rowling said of Dudley Dursley, as Trump is “the biggest and stupidest of the lot, he (i)s the leader.” But whether or not the Russians thumbed the scale, they certainly got what they wanted. Shouldn’t that fact alone give us pause?

Regardless what you think of the Mueller travesty, you can’t look at this man in the White House without recognizing he is anti-science, practically illiterate, ignorant of history, immoral, utterly incompetent, and the most unqualified person ever to hold the office. So yeah, great choice, America.

If you thought Trump’s first term was a dumpster fire, just wait til you get a load of his second.

 

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I love the ocean, partly because it is so full of possibility. Whenever I am there, I always pull myself out of bed in time to be on the beach at sunrise, so as to capture the wonder of those moments that take your breath away. A pod of dolphins appears out of nowhere, a reddish egret dances in the surf, a ghost crab scurries by your feet, and others that I still hope to see one day.

Once, when walking along the surf line, I saw a disturbance maybe 30 feet out in the waves. Something big was moving under the water. What could it be? A shark? A mammal? Maybe a leatherback turtle? But no, it was a fellow beachgoing human, emerging from the water with rubberized fins and a snorkel mask. How disappointing.

Disappointing? I thought later about this and realized how badly skewed an idea that is. Yes, humans are common in our everyday experience. Is it the familiarity that blinds us to the absolute wonder that humans are? If any other creature had emerged from the surf, I would have merely been seeing a natural behavior, repeated generation after generation in ordinary course. But a human? An African ape, a creature that lost its hair and stood upright in one small patch of a continent on the other side of the world, now swimming in the Florida surf? Not only is that creature exploring a totally foreign ecosystem, but he is using artificial devices to help him swim better and even breathe while underwater. How could anything be more amazing than that?

As I’ve worked to broaden myself over the past few years, I’ve constantly kept that idea in my head. How amazing is it that this same African ape can bring tears to my eyes by playing a violin, can send my heart racing by leaping through the air or spinning across the stage in an exquisite ballet, can make me see water lilies in a profoundly new way with a few splashes of color on a canvas or, yes, take my breath away by re-interpreting a set 400-year-old words?

I’m falling deeply in love with classical music, with dance, and in particular with the works of Claude Monet, and of course my adoration of science only grows deeper as I explore these new worlds. But in my quietest, most honest moments, the art I love most remains the works of William Shakespeare. And what I love most about his plays, as I was recently reminded, is how we modern humans have made, and continue to make, new meaning from old words.

I’m thinking of three moments in particular, though I’m sure there are more, and I will keep watching for them, as they are the magic that keep Shakespeare alive now and into the future.

First, a silly one, but so joyous that I can hardly watch it without happy tears. It is Kenneth Branagh’s version of Much Ado About Nothing. In this play,┬áthe scene in which Benedick overhears Claudio, Leonato, and the Prince describing how Beatrice has fallen in love with him is the key turning point. After hearing this news (which of course is just a ruse by the Prince to bring Beatrice and Benedick together), Benedick addresses the audience in one of Shakespeare’s funniest speeches. At one point, Benedick says, “Love me? Why, it must be requited.” Branagh reinterprets this line with a modern ear. He says, “Love me!?! . . . Why?” In this moment, we have to fall in love with Benedick. Before this scene, he in many ways lives up to the second half of his name. But right there we see his insecurity and his own self-doubt. And it is, of course, not at all in Shakespeare’s original text.

Shakespeare usually used the word “wherefore” when he wanted to ask why, as in “wherefore art thou Romeo?” It’s clear in the context of Benedick’s speech that the “why” is just a throwaway word to fill up the space before “it must be requited.” Branagh reached in and pulled out a new, thoroughly modern meaning for the line, and I love it.

The second example isn’t a word at all. In fact, it isn’t even, properly, part of the play. It occurs after the play has ended. I’m referring to my dark horse candidate for Shakespeare’s greatest play, Measure for Measure. In this most problematic of the problem plays, the manipulative and (to a modern ear) unsympathetic Duke, after convincing nun-in-training Isabel that her brother is dead and that the man responsible, a man who threatened Isabel with rape and her brother with torture, deserves her forgiveness, has asked (more like demanded) Isabel’s hand in marriage. It is the play’s final line. Isabel gives no answer, and I believe it is perfect. In Shakespeare’s time, I imagine the ending (while perhaps a bit uncomfortable) fit in well with the general belief that of course any woman would be happy to marry a duke. But Shakespeare didn’t write it that way. He left it open, and today I can’t imagine any production in which Isabel gladly takes the Duke’s hand as they trot off stage together. Rather, I hope that modern audiences see the ending for what it is, a tragedy.

This is exactly how the BBC played it in their 1994 production. Juliet Aubrey plays Isabel as deeply sincere and a little frightening in her desire to protect her chastity. In the end, when the “fabulous Duke of dark corners” reveals how he secretly saved her brother and then lied to Isabel about it, he seems surprised by her incredulous reaction. In the end, when everyone else has left the stage, only the Duke and Isabel remain. He for a second time asks for her hand in marriage. Isabel just stares, no words, no reaction, just . . . stares. Neither moves toward the other, as if there’s an unbridgeable divide between them – as, of course, there is.

And then, finally, there is Sir Patrick Stewart in Macbeth. On its surface, Macbeth is a fairly straightforward tale – besides the witches, of course. While Macbeth lacks the cosmic significance of King Lear and the mental gymnastics of Hamlet, the power of watching the psychological effect of Duncan’s murder on Macbeth and his wife is enough to make it – for me – one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays.

But then comes Sir Patrick in the final scene. Macbeth is confronted by Macduff. He finally understands how the witches have tricked him with their riddles, these “juggling fiends” who “lie like truth.” He says, “Lay on Macduff, and damned be he who first cries hold – ” and then there is a pause. Macbeth and Macduff fight. Macbeth gets the upper hand. He’s about to kill Macduff, to overcome the prophesy and continue his own murderous reign. Then Macbeth sees the witches coming toward him. He realizes this is all part of their game. And Sir Patrick drops the knife, and finishes the line. “Enough.” In that moment, Macbeth becomes modern. He becomes Jean-Luc Picard of the starship Enterprise, ambassador of peace and champion of the wonder that is humanity. That pause changed the play entirely for me, to the point that I am disappointed now by any other interpretation.

The point of all this is two-fold. One, we humans are pretty incredible. We’ve come a long way since our ancestors first stood up, and a long way since Shakespeare’s era. We’re kinder now. We are more aware of the rights of others. We’re less tied to tradition, more willing to examine our assumptions. And we can get better still.

Secondly, though, all this potential for modern reading is already there in the text, waiting to be discovered. Shakespeare didn’t have to put it there. He didn’t have to put a “why” after “love me”. (OK, that’s my weakest example – he probably needed the extra syllable). He didn’t have to make Shylock or Othello (or Macbeth) so sympathetic. He didn’t have to make Isabel silent. And so many other examples. Did Shakespeare write for us? Or maybe he wrote for our descendants, people who maybe will find in his work wonders that we, still growing and still learning, even now cannot see.

I hope so.

 

My first book, called The Turtle and the Universe, was published by Prometheus Books in July 2008. You can read about it by clicking on the link above.
My second book, Atoms and Eve, is available as an e-book at Barnes and Noble. Click the link above. You can download the free nook e-reader by clicking the link below.
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A blog by Stephen Whitt

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