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I read a book not too long ago called The Science of Shakespeare by Dan Falk. It was a lot of fun, delving into both Hamlet and some of Shakespeare’s lesser-known plays, as well as the accelerating pace of science before, during, and after Shakespeare’s time. Truth be told, however, the actual links between Shakespeare and the science of his time are pretty thin. While Shakespeare of course had an amazing intellect and a deep curiosity, I think the most reasonable assessment has to be that Shakespeare wasn’t particularly interested in science.

But the beauty of Symphony is that I’m not limited to only one kind of music. I can love Shakespeare and science – and I do. Today I’m going to tell a story – certainly not worthy of the Bard, but I hope you like it, anyway – about how we got to now.

Now, in case you haven’t been watching, is the time when we humans will complete the initial reconnaissance of our Solar System by visiting tiny Pluto. Planet or not, Pluto is among the last of the major objects in the Sun’s family to receive a visitor from Earth.

As we watch these close-up pictures of Pluto fill our computer screens, let’s think about how we got here.

Long ago, people noticed the stars. No one knew what the stars could be, but that didn’t prevent us from making up stories. The stars were holes in a blanket, revealing a fire behind. They were milk, squirted from the breast of Hera. They (according to Jim and Huck) were eggs, laid by the Moon across the sky just as a frog might lay her own eggs in the river. Clever as they were, none of the stories came anywhere near the massive truth that stars were enormous nuclear furnaces in whose chaotic centers the elements of our very own bodies are forged. Science got us that story, and lots more besides.

Before science, people noticed that the stars moved across the sky in familiar patterns. Certain stars always returned to the same spot in the sky at the same time each season. The bright stars of Orion always appeared in the Autumn in the Northern Hemisphere for instance

.Orion-Constellation

But there were other objects, too. They looked something like stars, although they seemed not to twinkle the way stars did. More unusually, though, these objects wandered across the sky separate from the unchanging stars. They were named “planets” a word that meant “wanderers.”

People named the planets after their gods. The lovely morning and evening stars were, once they were found to be the same object, named after the goddess of love. The bright and stately planet that moved over the full sky was the king of the gods. The reddish world was the god of war.

But what were they, really? In 1609 Galileo pointed a new device toward the heavens and saw that the planets were more than just lights in the sky. Venus, not just the goddess of love, was also a world that, like our own Moon, passed through phases of light and dark. Warlike Mars didn’t show phases, but unlike the stars it formed a disk in Galileo’s telescope. And Jupiter, the god king, was not a single world but five, with the four smaller ones circling round and round the central disk (this, incidentally, was a discovery so momentous that even Shakespeare may have referenced it in his play Cymbeline – a work I look forward to reading soon).

Next came the discoveries of Kepler, who found that the orbits of the planets followed strict mathematical rules, and Newton, who explained those rules with an elegantly simple law. Every time an apple falls from a tree it follows the same law that keeps all the worlds of the Solar System in orbit around the Sun.

Later we were able to use those same laws of motion to discover planets and other worlds we couldn’t even see with our eyes! Uranus was revealed due to its invisible influence on Saturn. Neptune showed up when it pulled on Uranus (ok, stop giggling).

The story would be perfect if only Pluto had also shown up due to its gravitational tug on Neptune. Sadly, Pluto’s discovery was actually an accident. Mathematical errors in the calculations of Uranus’ and Neptune’s orbits led scientists to expect another large planet in Pluto’s place. Instead, and mostly by accident, tiny Pluto happened to be in the right place at the right time, showing that even scientists need a little bit of good luck sometimes.

For thousands of years, people wondered about the planets. But the discoveries of Galileo, Kepler, Newton and their followers let us not only learn what the planets are, but actually travel there. In less than 24 hours, New Horizons will zip along its Newtonian trajectory, flying past a world that Newton’s genius (and a few math errors) helped us know.

pluto

William Shakespeare died 399 years ago. It seems unlikely that we’ll ever have another new Shakespeare play to read, view, and enjoy.

And yet each of us can discover Shakespeare’s plays, and then re-discover them, for ourselves. Most amazing to me is Shakespeare’s utter refusal to be pinned down by a moral, a philosophy, or even (as George Bernard Shaw points out) a conscience. Nothing is ever simple in Shakespeare – villains like Macbeth and Iago are delicious and deep, while even the purest of heroes, Henry V and Edgar, are deeply ambiguous.

My discovery over the past week has been a play I knew essentially nothing of until I started reading it – the extraordinary Measure for Measure.

In this play, no one is likeable. Yet a great many characters are deeply memorable. The morality of the play is not our own, but neither is it the “official” morality of Shakespeare’s time. Rather, it is very human – bawdy, hypocritical, struggling to be rational and as a result becoming all the more irrational. It is a deeply sexual play, a violent play in which virtually no violence is actually shown, a play with an ending that is so awkward and unsatisfying that you feel as though you’ve been somehow duped and yet, in a certain sad sense, deeply enlightened.

The most intriguing character in the play is certainly Isabella, sister to the condemned Claudio. When Claudio’s fiancee Juliet becomes pregnant, Claudio is sentenced to death to serve as an example and rein in the rampant immorality found in the city. Isabella goes to Angelo, the acting ruler of the city, to beg for her brother’s life, only to be told that she herself must surrender her body to Angelo or see her brother not only killed but tortured, as well.

The most interesting, and disturbing, struggle in the play becomes how Isabella chooses to deal with this turn of events. Cold and virtuous, Isabella is irresistible to the men she encounters, and in the end this leads to what I see as her personal tragedy. Or maybe not. Or maybe the tragedy is within her all along. Or not.

It is a fascinating play, and has instantly become one of my favorites. It’s a pleasure to live on a planet where I can still discover a Measure for Measure.

This weekend I watched and read along with Sir Ian McKellan’s version of King Lear.

This is a big play. Not just a long play (it is listed here as the seventh longest of Shakespeare’s plays – Macbeth, by contrast, is seventh shortest), but a big play. I feel overwhelmed by all that happens.

As usual, Asimov gives me context and Harold Bloom gives me direction in gathering my thoughts on this play, and they both have much to say. And yet after reading them, and many other thoughts and reviews, I still feel that I don’t know this play. Is it just too big?

Love. Love is a central theme of this play, which seems a crazy statement for a play containing so much misery, so much betrayal, and in the end so much, and so “untimely”, as one character says , death. But it is love that makes the betrayal and the misery so painful to watch.

In the famous opening scene (“nothing will come of nothing” which would have made a good subtitle for this play – more on that later), Lear demands public pronouncements of love from his three daughters. Cordelia, the youngest and up until now Lear’s clear favorite, loves her father too much to lie to him as her older sisters have done. In telling the truth, that she loves Lear as a daughter should love a father, “nor more nor less,” she draws Lear’s wrath – and indirectly causes all the disaster that is about to befall the characters of the play.

lear and cordelia

Love also pervades the other plot in this big play. Edmund is the bastard son of Gloucester. In the McKellan play, the pain Edmund feels when his father talks quite inappropriately about Edmund’s origin (“there was good sport in his making”) is almost physical. It’s clear that what Edmund really wants is love, the sort of love his older and legitimate brother Edgar has always received from their father. In fact, the pain and humiliation that Edmund unfairly experiences in this first scene makes it difficult to view Edmund as a true villain, even after Edmund’s betrayal of his father leads to the horrible blinding Gloucester is given by the truly evil Cornwall. In fact, Cornwall pointedly removes Edmund from this scene, and one wonders whether Edmund, supposedly so cold-blooded and cruel, could have stood by and watched this torture.

king lear edmund

After Cornwall is killed by a servant – I think this is Shakespeare giving voice to every audience member who wants to destroy this eye-gouging monster the way you want to smash a bug with your boot – his wife Regan tries tempting Edmund with her love. At the same time Regan’s older sister Goneril (could Shakespeare have chosen a less attractive name?), wife of the “milk-livered” Albany, decides that she, too, loves Edmund. This, and not any dispute over land or power, sets the two sisters against one another, eventually leading to both their deaths.

When Edmund, mortally wounded by his brother, sees how powerful love can be, he has an amazing, and yet convincing, change of heart and tries to save Lear and Cordelia from the death that he has ordered for them. He dies without knowing that this reversal has failed; Cordelia is killed and Lear dies soon after.

In some ways one feels that Edgar, essentially the only survivor in the play, is the unluckiest character of all – left to clean up the mess of all this death and destruction. What good is all this love if all it leads to is death after death and misery upon misery? My only answer is the beautiful scene from Act Four, the scene where Lear and Cordelia are reconciled. Both Bloom and Asimov wrote that it is the most beautiful scene in all Shakespeare, and therefore in all the English language. With the possible exception of Huck Finn choosing to go to Hell, so far I agree. Though  I knew it was coming, the scene brought tears to my eyes. It was played marvelously by McKellan and Romola Garai, and the original words that Shakespeare chose are so incredibly understated that it almost doesn’t feel like Shakespeare. Yet it so, so works:

lear cordelia reconciled

 

KING LEAR

as I am a man, I think this lady
To be my child Cordelia.

CORDELIA
And so I am, I am.

KING LEAR
Be your tears wet? yes, ‘faith. I pray, weep not:
If you have poison for me, I will drink it.
I know you do not love me; for your sisters
Have, as I do remember, done me wrong:
You have some cause, they have not.

CORDELIA
No cause, no cause.

It still makes me cry to read it now. All the death and misery of this play is worth this one moment. And maybe that’s the point.

But back to Edmund, and to nothing. Nothing will come of nothing. I can’t help but think, when I hear and read Lear’s line to Cordelia as she refuses to give him the false love he demands, of Lawrence Krauss’s book A Universe From Nothing. And that makes me think about atheism and the moment many years ago when I first read these lines from Edmund:

This is the excellent foppery of the world, that,
when we are sick in fortune,–often the surfeit
of our own behavior,–we make guilty of our
disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars: as
if we were villains by necessity; fools by
heavenly compulsion; knaves, thieves, and
treachers, by spherical predominance; drunkards,
liars, and adulterers, by an enforced obedience of
planetary influence; and all that we are evil in,
by a divine thrusting on: an admirable evasion
of whoremaster man, to lay his goatish
disposition to the charge of a star! My
father compounded with my mother under the
dragon’s tail; and my nativity was under Ursa
major; so that it follows, I am rough and
lecherous. Tut, I should have been that I am,
had the maidenliest star in the firmament
twinkled on my bastardizing.

And of course I was hooked. And then Edmund turned out to be the villain of the play. Pretty strong indictment of atheism there, right? Maybe, but maybe not. What I’m struck by in the play is the failure of any sort of real justice. Yes, Cornwall is killed by the “everyman”, but that everyman is then easily dispatched by Regan, and Cornwall’s death actually seems to fit in just fine to Regan’s plans. Gloucester was “blind” to his mistreatment of Edmund, but surely his own blinding was anything but justified by this, and of course neither Edgar nor Cordelia deserved any of the misery they received. Lear, it’s true, gets his comeuppance for his foolish treatment of his daughters, but it doesn’t ever feel like justice so much as the natural and predictable result of a foolish old man’s foolish choices. Is it justice to be burned by a fire when you stick your own hand in? Nothing would have come of nothing, but disaster comes of foolishness.

Lear realizes this in the storm. I looked hard in the storm scene for parallels to my favorite scene in Moby-Dick, but didn’t really find them. Here I see Lear not so much defying the gods as begging them to do him in, to end the pain and humiliation. But as usual the gods aren’t listening. Lear will have to make his own path. And, unlike Ahab, who fails to live up to the promise he shows in the storm, in the end Lear does find his way. And it truly is his way, his and Cordelia’s.

After he is blinded, Gloucester delivers as strong a renunciation of the gods as one is likely to find anywhere in Shakespeare:

As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods.
They kill us for their sport.

I suspect that Shakespeare saved this line for a play that is pointedly pre-Christian, feeling he could get away with it in that context but perhaps no other. But notice how well this sentiment fits with Macbeth, with Romeo and Juliet, even with Hamlet. There is no supernatural help to be found in Shakespeare – nothing will come of nothing. The only redemption that is ever found is that built, created, invented between thinking, feeling, wise and foolish humans. Nothing will come of nothing, but something – something real, something valuable, something that, for at least a little while, can hold back the howling storm – can come from us.

This weekend I read and watched the St. Louis Shakespeare Company production of The Taming of the Shrew.

The play left me feeling much as I felt after reading and watching The Merchant of Venice, and also brought up some of the same troubling thoughts as did Prospero’s treatment of Caliban in The Tempest.

In this play, a rich nobleman named Baptista is trying to sell off his two daughters, Katherine or Kate and Bianca. While Bianca is sweet and demure, Kate (the “shrew” of the title) is loud, obnoxious, and apparently in need of correction. While several suitors vie for Bianca, only Petruchio, a poor man looking for money, agrees to take on Kate the shrew (and the considerable fortune that comes with marrying into Baptista’s family, of course).

The rest of the play consists of slapstick humor bookended by cruel mental and physical humiliation of Kate by our “hero” Petruchio. In the end, Petruchio wins a bet by demonstrating that of the three new wives at a gathering (his own Kate, her sister Bianca, and a rich widow introduced late in the play), Kate proves to be the most obedient and subservient. Kate’s closing speech shows that her will has been entirely crushed – she offers to place her own, soft hand below her husband’s boot. Lovely.

Immediately I sought some sort of explanation. Both Isaac Asimov, in his Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare, and Yale professor Harold Bloom, in his Shakespeare: the Invention of the Human, made rather unconvincing excuses for this mess of a play. Bloom in particular seems to utterly disbelieve Kate’s own words. When Petruchio shows up late to the hasty marriage he himself arranged, Kate says,

I must forsooth be forc’d

To give my hand, oppos’d against my heart

Immediately after this passage, Bloom says,”(T)his is not the anxiety of an unwilling bride. Kate (is) authentically in love”

In other words, no means yes.

I don’t think any of this works. I think this play is exactly what it seems to be. It tells the story of a shrewish woman who is abused out of her shrewishness. It is about how a man should rule his wife and force her into the mold he desires. It is a symptom of a society that sees women as property, without a proper will of their own.

I think that later in his career Shakespeare will get better. He’ll learn more about people and he’ll become a more insightful critic of his own, often immoral, society. But here I think Shakespeare is just wrong.

More important, though, is our reaction to Shakespeare. We love Shakespeare for so many good reasons that it’s hard for us to deal with his moral failures, such as those in The Tempest, The Merchant of Venice, and here in The Taming of the Shrew. How do we deal with those failures? Either we do what Asimov and Bloom do – Shakespeare’s not really saying what you think he’s saying, he’s actually being ironic, he’s showing how Kate is really controlling the relationship, etc. – or we admit that Shakespeare was just wrong. Crucially, never do we say that Shakespeare and Shakespeare’s culture were actually right about women, about Jews, about slaves and servants. Why? Because we’re better now. Again in this play we see that compared to us, Shakespeare in some ways was a moral ignoramus. Compared to us. In other words, we’re getting better. And a moral disaster of a play like The Taming of the Shrew demonstrates the progress we’ve made. It’s something to be proud of.

 

 

OK, this is supposed to be a blog about science and wonder. I find myself more and more interested in other subjects, and so I write about them, too. But this time I do have a connection, of sorts.

What an amazing time we live in! I decided to take up another Shakespeare play, The Tempest. I was able to download not just The Tempest but the entire collected works of Shakespeare to my e-reader in a matter of seconds for the great sum of 99 cents. After reading through the play once (and, frankly, missing a lot of the intended action), I found a performance of The Tempest on YouTube by the St. Louis Shakespeare Company. While following along with the text on my Nook, I watched the entire 2+ hour performance on my laptop, pausing, rewinding, and replaying at my leisure. Has their ever been a better time than this?

Miranda

Miranda

So on to the play. The Tempest is a  troublesome play for a modern reader, mostly due to the play’s most interesting character, the man-monster Caliban. It is so tempting, as a modern reader, to see Caliban with modern eyes – as the misunderstood, abused slave who can and will be redeemed. But Shakespeare’s treatment of the character just won’t allow it. The Tempest is filled with bewitching magic, lovely poetry, burning sexual desire, and some truly funny scenes. But it is not, and cannot be transformed into, a treatise on the evils of slavery. Shakespeare portrays Caliban as an ungrateful slave who turns on his master with an ill-conceived and immediately doomed plan, then has Caliban beg for forgiveness and gratefully re-enter the master-slave relationship. One simply cannot escape the plain meaning of the text.

Prospero

Prospero

Shakespeare’s problem is that he’s just too good. Just as with Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, just as with Iago and Macbeth and Edmund and probably other villains that I’ve yet to encounter, in Caliban Shakespeare has created a character who at times elicits our sympathy. Here is Caliban’s most memorable quote (from Act 3, Scene 2)

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 waked 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 waked
I cried to dream again.

Caliban

Caliban

 

If the man-monster can have thoughts like these, then are we really meant to dispise him? Why does Prospero hate Caliban so? Well, Shakespeare gives the reason – Caliban’s attempted rape of Prospero’s daughter Miranda, and his boasting of it later:

“O ho, O ho! Would’st had been done!/Thou didst prevent me; I had peopled else/This isle of Calibans.”

I’m beginning to believe more and more that Shakespeare is interesting not so much in what he gives us from the 1600s but in how we interpret Shakespeare today. I’ve written already about the wholly modern, and un-Shakespearean, twist that Patrick Steward gives Macbeth in delivering the Scot’s last line. I love that ending, because it twists Shakespeare’s meaning in a way that is, somehow, still true to the struggle about which Shakespeare was writing, the struggle between the old world of revenge and violence and the new world of ideas and justice. This is the very struggle that Steven Pinker writes about in The Better Angels of Our Nature, and both here and in The Tempest I think we see a glimpse into the very struggle about which Pinker writes.

According to Harold Bloom in Invention of the Human, Caliban has become the politically-driven focus of many modern versions of The Tempest, and it is unfortunate.

“(Caliban) has become an African-Caribbean heroic Freedom Fighter. This is not even a weak misreading; anyone who arrives at this view is simply not interested in reading the play at all.”

I understand what Bloom is saying here, but I take a different meaning from this need to actually follow Shakespeare’s words. In The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare creates a deeply interesting character in Shylock, but any reading that papers over the blatant antisemitism of the play misses something crucial.  In the same way, the interesting character of Caliban cannot cover up the fact that Shakespeare, a man of his time, had an unfortunate view of race, station, class, and slavery. To try to cover that up that error in Shakespeare’s morality misses something crucial.

Shakespeare was an amazing writer, but his morals were in many ways the morals of late 16th-early 17th century England. Just as we have made scientific and technological progress since those times, as Pinker points out in The Better Angels of Our Nature, we’ve made moral progress. as well. Just as Newton stood on the shoulders of giants to see further into the natural world, we stand on the shoulders of those who made slavery, racism, antisemitism, sexism, and homophobia the moral wrongs we recognize them as today.

We know the forced conversion of Shylock is a great evil; we know that the continued enslavement of Caliban is a great evil. We can look back now and see that even a writer as talented and sophisticated as Shakespeare didn’t know, yet we do. We’re getting better, one small step at a time. And that, maybe more than anything else, is the positive message to take from the troublesome play The Tempest.

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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