An American in Paris and a fish out of water

My wife and I just saw An American in Paris at the San Diego Civic Theater. It was a dazzling thing, filled with movement and light and sound and color. Even from the cheap seats it felt like a window into a pop-art version of post-war Paris. The reboot turned Lise, the central love interest, into a ballerina, leading to extended dance numbers. That, in turn, meant songs from the 1951 movie were trimmed or cut entirely, including the lovely – and plot-moving – “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” to make room for the dance-friendly but relatively empty-headed Gershwin Bros. stomper “Fidgety Feet.”

I thoroughly enjoyed the whole spectacle. But, being someone more into Shakespeare than modern musicals, I kept waiting for someone, anyone, to be horribly betrayed and murdered. That apparently rarely happens in Broadway productions based on MGM musicals. (Hey, there’s a thought: Othello, The Musical. Only, yeah, it’s been done, a few times at least.) I also kept waiting for insight into someone’s, anyone’s, thoughts. That, too, didn’t happen. And that’s the bit I really missed: the breaking of the fourth wall and the intimate engagement of the soliloquy.

As technically and physically astonishing as the performance was, it was just that: an awesome audio-visual display. It was something meant to be looked at and listened to, but not immersed in on a psychological level.

Hmm, maybe it’s time to give opera a try.

The Importance of Being Exton

I’ve seen a half-dozen productions of Richard II both live and (mostly) on DVD, and in most the knight Piers Exton, Richard’s killer, is swapped out for or combined with another character, most often Aumerle. I suspect two directorial motivations. First, to trim the cast. Second, to avoid having the play’s climactic Big Event occur at the hands of a character who is, at most, a silent background extra until more than half-way though Act V.

While the Exton/Aumerle swap adds a frisson of betrayal at the end, it’s a betrayal that to me usually rings hollow. Moreover, it misses two key points that I think are central to the play.

First, that threats to political stability don’t always come from major political players. While Henry Bolingbroke occupies most of the play’s – and Richard’s – attention, Bolingbroke doesn’t so much threaten the existing political order as represent its continuation. Even the dynastic line remains unbroken. Bolingbroke, arguably already heir to the throne, deposes. But Exton, a nobody out of nowhere, disposes.

Historically, a young Richard II faced down the Peasant’s Revolt, an uprising of relative sociopolitical nonentities who were treated as such – and worse – as soon as they were deceived and crushed. Having a minor character kill Richard both echoes and closes that earlier revolt.

Second – and, as a writer today I think this is the more-important point – Richard’s death at Exton’s hands shines a spotlight on the underbelly of political dialogue. It demonstrates how idle comments that may have been made by influencers (the audience has only Exton’s recollection, after all), including leaders but also including, oh, playwrights, can provoke unwanted violence from unexpected quarters. Exton’s importance lies in his unimportance.

Bolingbroke himself identifies this tremendous power very early in the play: “Four lagging winters and four wanton springs/End in a word; such is the breath of kings.” (1.3.214-215)

I don’t think these are especially prescient points for Shakespeare to have made. After all, politics has been going on for a long, long time, and the fundamental issues are simply evergreen. But each generation discovers the truths anew for itself.

Thoughts on The Taming of the Shrew

My family has tickets for an upcoming performance of The Taming of the Shrew at a local community college. My teens are familiar with the story, sorta, from the movie 10 Things I Hate About You (1999), which they really enjoyed.

The Taming of the Shrew is among the few Shakespeare plays I think often improve when adapted. 10 Things added to the story, while preserving its basic plot and even a few gags. A generation before, there was a wonderful episode of the detective drama/comedy Moonlighting, starring Cybill Shepherd and Bruce Willis, called “Atomic Shakespeare” (1986). It’s a retelling of The Shrew as a retelling of The Shrew in a brilliantly erratic mash-up of period dress, original dialog, and anachronistic references.

On the other hand, I find Kiss Me Kate (1948, 1953), McLintock! (1963) and the first-season episode of The Saint (“The Golden Journey,” 1962) to be condescending and regressive compared to Shakespeare’s play. So I’m really looking forward to seeing what a college drama department makes of it today.

To prepare, I read the play (Riverside) and watched two versions. The first was an American direct-to-video stage production starring Karen Austin and Franklyn Seales as Katherina and Petruchio (1982, currently available free via Amazon Prime). The second was the BBC-TV version starring Sarah Badel and John Cleese (1980).

To my surprise, neither included the introductory Induction with drunken tinker Christopher Sly being fooled into thinking he’s a nobleman watching a play put on by his servants. To me, that scene sets the stage, both literally and metaphorically, for a farcical view of events unfolding in a self-aware, self-mocking performance. Without that initial set-up, the viewer is dropped into first-world events happening as realistic comedy, instead of second-world events presented as parody.

In contrast, the Moonlighting episode not only preserves the framing device, but returns to it at the end, giving the story a final dismissive fillip in a snarky parody of Alexander Pope’s additions to the Sly character. That may be why I like that version so much.

However, with what we have of Shakespeare’s play, a complete framing device is non-canonical. Often, directors opt to delete it. What remains, though, then rests on a fundamental misogyny that takes considerable interpretive effort to soften or redirect.

This, by the way, is not a modern issue. Shakespeare’s successor, John Fletcher, wrote a popular sequel called The Woman’s Prize, or the Tamer Tamed, in which a widowed and remarried Petruchio finds himself on the receiving end of such treatment as he dished out, with echoes of Lysistrata, and with similar results.

Many modern interpretations turn Katherina’s submission speech at the end into a spoof of obedience, during which she indicates to the audience that she means none of it. In other words, she isn’t “tamed.” That approach, though, calls into question the central love story, and turns the play into a mere contest between con artists – in which case, if Katherina is the wittier, why marry Petruchio?

(I feel, although the story is a farce, it’s still a love story. So Katherina and Petruchio should, for the sake of the story, be struck by real, passionate love for each other at first sight.)

Of the non-adapted versions, I rather heretically think the Yankee one surpasses the British in solving the problems. The American version begins with a physical setting of the stage, and continually reminds the viewer that one is watching a farce by incorporating vaudevillian performance jokes: everyone leaning to one side every time the word “Pisa” is said, en masse sighs at every mention of Bianca, and frequent direct eye contact through the fourth wall. That establishes and maintains the action within the realm of unreality, even without the Induction.

Every generation creates its own version of Shakespeare’s plays. I’m very excited to see a fresh one in a few days!

The hero of The Merchant of Venice

I actively dislike The Merchant of Venice. That it provokes in me such a strong reaction is a testament to Shakespeare’s brilliance as a playwright.

Thing is, I find the characters repulsive and the way they behave indefensible. Antonio is a self-important racist so hardened that slurs and derogatory treatment of others are second nature. Shylock is a bitter, grasping zealot who drives away his daughter and would publicly torture a man to death. Bassanio and Lorenzo are ignorant gold-diggers. Gratiano is a party-hearty bully. Jessica is a thieving spendthrift. Portia is a heartless, hypocritical, selfish deceiver who breaks the law to serve her own ends, with Nerissa as her eager accomplice.

Now, by “hero” I don’t mean “title character.” I’m pretty sure Shakespeare meant the titular merchant to be Antonio; he’s the main character, the one at greatest risk. Story-wise, Bassanio and Shylock are merely the means to place Antonio in danger and Portia the means to save him.

At the same time, we’re all creative enough to fight our corners for any of the characters. I might place my stake on Portia as being worthiest of the title, because she sells the biggest bill: the lives of three men, Antonio, Shylock, and Bassanio, with a little of Gratiano and Nerissa and Lorenzo and Jessica thrown in for good measure, all while branding herself as “good.”

But that doesn’t make her a hero in my book.

However, it finally occurred to me that there is one character in The Merchant of Venice I quite like. It’s Launcelot Gobbo’s father, Old Gobbo.

Old Gobbo’s story mirrors Antonio’s. Like Antonio, he has a deep love for a dependent who needs his help to reach a better place in life. Unlike Antonio, he’s old, poor, and blind. But Old Gobbo manages to help his son attain his goal through heartfelt, direct action – the dish of doves, by the way, unlike Antonio’s cash, is just one element of his plan – all without bringing disaster on his head. His success is singularly untainted.

Furthermore, Old Gobbo doesn’t even mention the trick his son plays on him. Instead, he’s full of a father’s love, just happy to be with his son and happy to be helpful.

In all the ways that really matter, I think Old Gobbo is the real hero of The Merchant of Venice.

The joy of tangents: “He hears with ears”

I had re-watched The Merry Wives of Windsor for a MOOC (Massively Open Online Course) I’m taking, this time the 1982 BBC-TV version with Richard Griffiths as Falstaff, and I was struck once again by Pistol’s line, He hears with ears.” (Riverside 1.1.148, RSC 1.1.137)

Shakespeare didn’t do throwaway lines, and this one isn’t just a one-liner; it’s immediately commented on by Evans, the Welsh parson: “The tevil and his tam! What phrase is this? He hears with ear? Why, it is affectations.”

The line is essentially repeated, so we’re supposed to notice it. Yet, for all that, I wasn’t sure to whom Pistol is speaking: one of the three townspeople (Evans, Page, and the Host of the Garter) hearing evidence about the theft of Slender’s money, Falstaff (who calls him forward), Slender (who accuses him), the audience, or even himself. Furthermore, I idly thought for the umpteenth time, what does it mean? The story bowls right along, however, and such whimsical thoughts are easily set aside.

A few days later, I was watching an episode of Midsomer Murders (“The Glitch”) with my family, and one character had the habit of spouting off in Latin. One of the first things he says to DCI Barnaby and DS Jones, is “Deus, auribus – We have heard with our ears.” It’s appropriate in two ways: first, he has overheard a conversation between the two detectives and is interrupting, and second, he has information to pass on to them.

My ears pricked up, and later that evening I did a quick search online. Google came up with Psalm 44, Deus Auribus, out of the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer: “We have heard with our ears, O God, our fathers have told us what thou hast done in their time of old.”

Psalm 44 goes on to contrast those great past deeds with a present abandonment of the people, leaving them to be killed like sheep by their enemies, and begs for a divine awakening to deliver them.

That source dates from the early 19th century, although it’s descended directly from Edward VI’s original by Thomas Cranmer and the Elizabethan version so Shakespeare would have known it. Another tangent led me to the book’s introduction, where there’s a brief history that’s well worth reading, if only to see how richly religious authors can imbue their words with revulsion even as they maintain their cloak of impartial edification.

However, this is just one link in a chain of literary hand-me-downs. So, digging back further, I found this translation of the fourth-century Vulgate Bible, Psalm 43:2: “We have heard, O God, with our ears: our fathers have declared to us, The work thou hast wrought in their days, and in the days of old.”

The original Latin may be less frilly; I’ve only just started trying to pick it up with a facsimile copy of an Elizabethan-era Lily’s Grammar, but it just feels more muscular: “Deus auribus nostris audivimus patres nostri narraverunt nobis opus quod operatus es in diebus eorum in diebus antiquis.”

If this is what Pistol is referring to, then Shakespeare’s contemporary source may also have been Sternhold and Hopkin’s Whole Booke of Psalms Collected into Englishe Metre (1584), which set the psalms to music. Sternhold and Hopkins render the verse in English as “Our eares have heard our fathers tell, and reverently record, the wondrous workes that thou hast done in alder tyme (O Lord).”

Furthermore, it’s not the only time Pistol quotes a psalm. A little later, tipping off Ford about Falstaff’s plan to seduce his wife, Pistol says, “He woos both high and low, both rich and poor, both young and old, one with another, Ford.” (Riverside 2.1.113-114, RSC 2.1.110-11)

That’s straight out of Psalm 49:
All people hearken and geve eare
to that that I shall tell:
Both high and low, both rich and poore,
that in the world do dwell.

As fascinating as I found all this, I couldn’t see a clear connection between Psalm 44, Pistol’s line, Evans’ reaction, and the context of the earlier scene. I contrived a number of explanations, but they all seemed forced.

So I widened my search, explored different directions, and, after a diversion into the King James Bible, eventually came up with this, from the Elizabethan-era Geneva Bible, Isaiah 11:3-4: “. . . he shall not iudge after the sight of his eies, neither reproue by ye hearing of his eares. But with righteousnesse shall he iudge the poore . . .”

Here’s my egregious one-sentence summary of the whole story to put those lines in context (it’s all about context, this). David and his descendants will be wise, smart, fair, and strong as judges, rulers, and defenders of the faith; their messianic kingdom will be peaceful and glorious, one in which the wolf dwells with the lamb, the lion turns vegetarian, small children play on asp holes, and God intervenes directly to convert non-Christians in the Middle East.

There you have it, holy peace and holy war all in one, an antithesis worthy of Shakespeare himself.

But that, at last, made a clear connection, at least in my head. Pistol is saying to Evans, who’s not only a parson but the one who convenes the judging panel, that “he hears with ears” – in other words, he judges by surface appearances, he lacks insight, he’s no David. It’s an insult.

Which is why Evans, a parson, instantly recognizes the insult, takes offense (“The tevil and his tam!”), and upon further thought dismisses Pistol’s slur as “affectations,” a put-on.

Whew! I think I’ve managed to explain, to myself, at least, the meaning of those four little words “he hears with ears,” spoken by a minor character, to a supporting character, in The Merry Wives of Windsor. Along the way, I found a great resource for learning Latin, an online/downloadable copy of an Elizabethan psalter, and an online facsimile of an early King James Bible, complete with old and modern text. And it’s all thanks to Midsomer Murders.

Joseph Conrad’s Typhoon as a Zen parable

I love Joseph Conrad’s work, but came to his novella Typhoon only about a dozen years ago. I instantly recognized it as an extended Zen parable, which just as instantly struck me as an odd thing for Conrad. I turned to the library and the web to learn more.

It turns out that I may be the only person on the planet to believe Typhoon has anything to do with Zen. Conrad’s faith, of which he was skeptical, appears to have been rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition. And, of course, the novella Typhoon is based on a real event.

On the other hand, as a sailor Conrad spent time in and around Southeast Asia. As a writer, he occasionally refers to Eastern philosophy. In Amy Foster, for instance, Mr. Swaffer asks Dr. Kennedy if the ragged, incomprehensible man who washed up on their shores might be “a bit of a Hindoo,” and in Heart of Darkness, Conrad describes Marlow as having “. . . the pose of a Buddha preaching in European clothes and without a lotus flower . . . ” It’s perhaps worth noting that Heart of Darkness was published in 1899, the same year Conrad started writing Typhoon.

Multiple readings haven’t altered my opinion: Typhoon is a great Zen story, all the greater if it was achieved unknowingly.note*

Here’s a five-sentence summary of Typhoon. Captain MacWhirr of the steamer s/s Nan-Shan is a stolid, unimaginative man and a source of amusement for his young chief mate, Jukes, and his chief engineer, Solomon Rout. While on a routine trip carrying cargo that includes 200 homeward-bound Chinese laborers, signs of an impending storm prompt Jukes to suggest altering course to dodge it. MacWhirr, though, sees no benefit in dodging weather – the storm’s location can’t be pinpointed and once course is changed it’s impossible to confirm the storm’s presence on the original track. He maintains the ship’s heading and runs smack into the typhoon. He persists, however, meeting an extraordinary situation with ordinary competence, and the ship, with all hands, including the Chinese passengers, survives to limp into port.

On the face of it, Typhoon is the story of one man’s will (and by extension, man’s will) overcoming the vastly superior forces of nature.

But, as I said, I see more to it than that.

The very title, Typhoon, is Eastern in origin. It comes from the Chinese dai-fung, meaning “big wind.” So, not only is the title a spoiler – the reader knows from the beginning that the ship and crew will encounter a specific maritime disaster – it also establishes place. As an aside, my Japanese grandfather believed it was a good sign when a baby slept with its legs and arms spread wide. It was dai, or “big,” because the Chinese character, and the Japanese character based on it, resembles a small person with arms and legs outstretched. In context, that particular word “big” encompassed robust health and great good fortune. So, although an English speaker might find ominous the obvious homonym for dai, an Eastern speaker might find more-positive associations.

Typhoon‘s first sentence tells us about the captain.
Captain MacWhirr, of the steamer Nan-Shan, had a physiognomy that, in the order of material appearances, was the exact counterpart of his mind: it presented no marked characteristics of firmness or stupidity; it had no pronounced characteristics whatever; it was simply ordinary, irresponsive, and unruffled.

I was immediately struck by the idea that MacWhirr is the human equivalent of the Taoist “uncarved block,” or a thing in its simplest, most-natural state.

This impression was powerfully reinforced in the next paragraph, in which MacWhirr is described as sitting “sunburnt and smiling faintly, with downcast eyes.” The image of a Buddha is underlined by his partial resemblance to a polished bronze idol: “. . . no matter how close he shaved, fiery metallic gleams passed, when he moved his head, over the surface of his cheeks.”

MacWhirr’s professional abilities reveal something akin to a nearness to nature, or, perhaps more accurately, to things as they really are. For instance, he reveals a faulty door lock with no fuss or even evidence that the omniscient narrator can share; it’s an incident of transcendental, yet pragmatic, awareness. His ship is “the floating abode of harmony and peace.” And, he blandly understands the language of the sea, forgoing his cabin to live on the bridge and sleep in the chart room on this particular voyage.

Furthermore, MacWhirr’s decision to not alter course could be seen as being in keeping with the Zen concept of not changing with the changes. There’s a concise explanation of this idea in Zen Speaks: Shouts of Nothingness (1994) by Tsai Chih Chung and translated by Brian Bruya, pp. 73-74.
In changing with the changes, the more we chase the farther away we get. Meet the changes by not changing, for the number of ways to change is limited, while the number of ways to stay the same is infinite.

In other words, we don’t know where the typhoon is or where it will be in the future. So, any spot in the area is about as safe – and as dangerous – as any other. Here’s MacWhirr trying to enlighten his chief mate:
A gale is a gale, Mr. Jukes,” resumed the Captain, “and a full-powered steamship has got to face it. There’s just so much dirty weather knocking about the world, and the proper thing is to go through it . . .”

MacWhirr’s chief mate, Jukes, could be seen as a novitiate. He is an educated, competent officer and, to a large extent, Conrad’s alter ego. The chief engineer, Solomon (loaded name, that) Rout, represents a worldly wisdom, rooted in reality but with the intellectual distance to be amused in turns by both MacWhirr and Jukes. The ugly, ape-like boatswain might be an easy-going idiot, but he does his job well – he, like MacWhirr, may be closer to Zen than the others. The grubby freelance second mate may be the most imaginative, prescient person aboard; no wonder he loses his way in the crisis.

Yet, if MacWhirr is close to the sea and may be well on a path toward some sort of enlightenment, he’s also untested.
The sea itself, as if sharing Mr. Jukes’ good-natured forbearance, had never put itself out to startle the silent man . . . Dirty weather he had known, of course. He had been made wet, uncomfortable, tired in the usual way, felt at the time and presently forgotten. . . . But he had never been given a glimpse of immeasurable strength and of immoderate wrath . . . the wrath and fury of the passionate sea. He knew it existed, as we know that crime and abominations exist; he had heard of it as a peaceable citizen in a town hears of battles, famines, and floods, and yet knows nothing of what those things mean . . . Captain MacWhirr had sailed over the surface of the oceans as some men go skimming over the years of existence to sink gently into a placid grave, ignorant of life to the last, without ever having been made to see all it may contain of perfidy, of violence, and of terror.

Here we have the pre-crisis Captain MacWhirr. To the Western mind, including that of the author, he’s ignorant. To the Eastern mind, he lets the past go, and he has something of the know-nothing mind. Either way, the universe has a test for him: the typhoon. It would overwhelm the merely ignorant. But, like a student of Zen, MacWhirr’s letting go of the past holds fast the lessons of the past; his know-nothingness is rooted in vast experience and practical know-how.

In addition, MacWhirr embodies the paradox of wei wu wei: the ability to do without doing. Look, for example, at how MacWhirr’s characteristic inertness is repeatedly described: almost always coupled to positive outcomes such as his crew’s harmonious existence, or the profound relief felt by his chief mate upon his mere presence on the bridge.

And indeed in the moments following the storm hitting, MacWhirr is a man of invisibly decisive action. While his second mate is paralyzed by fear and his deck crew mills around under cover, MacWhirr, with the assistance of a stoic helmsman in the wheelhouse and frenzied engineers below decks, manages his ship’s heading to minimize the storm’s threat and maximize the effects of his own meager resources. He then, methodically, turns his attention to his deck crew, sending officers to roust them and put them to work securing the pandemonious Chinese laborers and their belongings. It’s a mission that strikes Jukes, a man of imagination, as a futile exercise, but MacWhirr is undeterred.

MacWhirr’s calm spreads through the crew. Jukes, harboring a fatalistic belief that he won’t live through the typhoon, remains steadfast in a state of what Conrad calls “do-nothing heroics.” The rest of the crew’s beliefs are unexplored; instead, their actions demonstrate the re-emergence of order. The ape-like boatswain manhandles objects and people into compliance. The ship’s carpenter silently retrieves ropes with which to rig lifelines. Only the second mate is left gibbering on the wheelhouse floor, relieved of his duties by MacWhirr.

Jukes’ journey, in contrast, is one of facing the inability of imagination and knowledge to adequately grasp the situation as it is. At the first whiff of danger, he springs into action with alacrity and professionalism. However, with the typhoon descending on him and his ship, Jukes finds himself saddled with “an inclination to disbelieve the reality of this experience. . . . (he) had never doubted his ability to imagine the worst; but this was so much beyond his powers of fancy that it appeared incompatible with the existence of any ship whatever.”

Desperate, Jukes turns to an unknowable force beyond nature: “My God! My God! My God! My God!”

The maelstrom tumbles him into MacWhirr, an island of solidity on the bridge, and in that moment more solid, and more useful, than the fixed cast iron fittings.

As always, MacWhirr deals pragmatically with things as they are, not things as they might be, a characteristic that seems to extend even to the concept of a deity; it’s worth noting that Conrad never has MacWhirr calling on supernatural assistance. Instead, his faith lies in his ship’s builders, the engines, chief engineer Rout, and chief mate Jukes. Upon being told that the lifeboats have been swept overboard, MacWhirr’s response is a calm “All right. . . . Can’t be helped.”

By the way, “can’t be helped” is embedded deep in Japanese culture as “Shikata ga nai.” It looks to Western eyes like a form of stoicism, but what it is, is an acceptance of things beyond one’s control. That nuance is often overlooked: shikata ga nai is not a surrender, it’s a letting go that enables one to get on with it, whatever “it” might be at that moment. It’s a tool that helps one practice mindfulness. There’s a closely related Zen teaching to the effect that the main cause of suffering, is not accepting things as they are.

The difference between MacWhirr and Jukes, between pragmatism and intellectualism, can be summed up in a single exchange between them, shouted over the shrieking hurricane while locked in a tight embrace for dear life. Jukes shouts “Will she get through this?” MacWhirr answers, “She may.”

Jukes has the mental vividness to conjure up a vast range of hypothetical outcomes, to which MacWhirr responds with simple reality.

Later, in the stillness of the eye of the hurricane with the second half of the storm fast approaching, MacWhirr attempts to impart to Jukes some final bits of wisdom. They are as good a Zen story-lesson as anything else.
It will be bad, and there’s an end. … We must trust her to go through it and come out on the other side. That’s plain and straight. . . . She will be smothered and swept again for hours,” mumbled the Captain. “There’s not much left by this time above deck for the sea to take away – unless you or me.”

Both, sir,” whispered Jukes, breathlessly.

You are always meeting trouble halfway, Jukes,” Captain MacWhirr remonstrated quaintly. “Though, it’s a fact that the second mate is no good. D’ye hear, Mr. Jukes? You would be left alone if . . . “

Captain MacWhirr interrupted himself and Jukes, glancing on all sides, remained silent.

Don’t you be put out by anything,” the Captain continued, mumbling rather fast. “Keep her facing it. They may say what they like, but the heaviest seas run with the wind. Facing it – always facing it – that’s the way to get through. You are a young sailor. Face it. That’s enough for any man. Keep a cool head.”

Everyone makes it, of course.

So, should MacWhirr have changed course? The absence of evidence reinforces the Zen teaching: one simply can’t say.

In the end, though, Jukes – and, by extension, perhaps Conrad himself – doesn’t get it. Jukes writes to a friend about Captain MacWhirr and the typhoon, saying, “I think he got out of it very well for such a stupid man.”

In the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu (1963, translated by D.C. Lau, p. 73) writes about leadership in Book One, XVII: “The best of all rulers is but a shadowy presence to his subjects. . . Hesitant, he does not utter his words lightly. When his task is accomplished and his work done, the people all say, ‘It happened to us naturally.’”

MacWhirr is, by that standard, the best of all captains. And, perhaps because the expected hero in the Western tradition, Jukes, so thoroughly misses the point as seen from an Eastern perspective, Typhoon may be among the best of all modern Zen literature.

What is the point of Zen enlightenment? Nothing (Chung and Bruya, p. 19.) What was the point of the typhoon? Nothing.

I’ll let Joseph Conrad have the final word here, from a letter to Robert Bontine Cunninghame Graham, quoted in Joseph Conrad: A Biography (1991) by Jeffrey Meyers, p. 166.
Faith is a myth and beliefs shift like mists on the shore; thoughts vanish; words, once pronounced, die; and the memory of yesterday is as shadowy as the hope of tomorrow. . . . In this world – as I have known it – we are made to suffer without the shadow of a reason, of a cause, or of guilt. . . . A moment, a twinkling of an eye and nothing remains – but a clod of mud, of cold mud, of dead mud cast into black space, rolling around an extinguished sun. Nothing. Neither thought, nor sound, nor soul. Nothing.




* An alternative explanation is that, being a man with rudimentary knowledge of a hammer, everything I see is a nail. A more theological argument might be that certain concepts of Zen philosophy, being universal, quite naturally exist within the Western tradition by other names, and vice versa. Go back up

King Lear’s motivation

Is King Lear crazy? Stupid? Suffering from dementia? Every production of King Lear must, to a certain extent, explain the guy – why does he act this way? Well, I have this crazy alternative theory for Lear’s motivation.

We know from others that he’s always been arbitrary, rash, and willful. We know that despite his age – he’s at least 80 (he says he’s “Fourscore and upward, not an hour more or less” 4.7.70) – he’s still a physically powerful man: one of the last things he does is, apparently bare-handed, kill a fully armed soldier. And, we know that Cordelia is his favorite child. I get the sense that he’s a true warrior king in a time of relative stability and peace.

I propose that Lear, bored and nostalgic, divides his kingdom knowing full well that it’s going to end in Regan and Goneril revolting. His hope is that the best third (probably the geographical center) goes to Cordelia, who, with Burgundy’s forces and Lear and his 100 elite knights at her side, will fight back and reunite the land by force of arms. So, Lear gets to re-live his glory days and prove himself again a great warrior king, the two children he dislikes are punished and vanquished, and his favorite is placed on the throne indebted to him.

But it all goes wrong from the outset due to his own impetuousness, and Lear is forced to rely on the one thing he failed to build: bonds of love. Yet, the love he has built is very nearly enough.

International Women’s Day: Favorite female characters from Shakespeare

On Twitter today, Shakespeare’s Globe (@The_Globe) asked users to name their favorite women from Shakespeare’s plays. I answered there (follow me at @MidLifeLit), but wanted to expand on my answers a bit.

The first fictional woman that really whacked me over the head was Alisoun, the Wife of Bath, in a college class on Medieval Literature. Mercenary, earthy, domineering except with husbands she truly loved, the Wife of Bath – and The Canterbury Tales, and Dr. Urania C. Petalas – really fired up my interest in literature.

When I read Chaucer now, and it’s a struggle, I can still see Dr. Petalas leaning an elbow on a battered podium, answering wide-eyed inquiries about Middle English. In response to a young woman’s question about whether “queynte” meant “quaint,” as in old-fashioned, she leaned forward, looked her student full in the face, and enunciated: “It’s. Her. Genitalia.” By the way, it also means “clever,” so, as Benedick says, there’s a double meaning in that.

Anyways, that class, that book, and that character were my first clues that human relationships weren’t so different 600 years ago, my first hint that there was altogether more to literature than what junior high and high school teachers were prepared to go into.

Moving on to Shakespeare, the history plays hold one of my all-time favorite fictional women: Margaret, in Henry VI, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Richard III. I think of this set as the Margaret Tetralogy, in which we see her grow from a frightened, virginal prisoner-of-war to a fierce warrior and political player in her own right. She’s savvy, far-sighted, independent, and absolutely determined. I’m strongly influenced by Julia Foster’s astonishing portrayal in the BBC TV Shakespeare series, which, to me, still stands alone amid a sea of extraordinary portrayals.

In the tragedies my favorite (so far) is Cordelia from King Lear. She’s uncompromising: a young, female version of Lear, but with more heart. And that heart makes her a much stronger person than Lear, or his other daughters. When the need arises, she’s also a warrior queen and a good leader. She dies at the end, yes – it’s a tragedy after all – but she triumphs over everyone, including Lear and her sisters.

From the comedies, I especially like Anne Page from The Merry Wives of Windsor. She’s independent-minded but truly gracious (a rare quality in Shakespeare’s characters), even conversing pleasantly with the absurd Slender. Despite interference from just about every character in the play except Falstaff (an exception I find funny in itself), she firmly holds her own and outmaneuvers everyone to get what she wants. It’s commonly played that Mistresses Ford and Page are the big protagonists/winners, but Anne tops them all.

Do you have a favorite female character from Shakespeare? There are certainly plenty to choose from!

Upgrading editions

Books: Julius Caesar and Macbeth
I replaced my copies of Julius Caesar and Macbeth with editions I like better.

When I went to the San Diego Shakespeare Society’s open reading of King Lear at the Central Library last Sunday, I stopped, as usual, at the Friends of the Library book sale. Thanks to its volunteers, the Central Library’s book sale is open daily, unlike my local branch, which holds a big FotL book sale once a month.

I’m always on the hunt for my preferred editions of Shakespeare’s plays. This outing, I bagged two Signet Classics: Macbeth and Julius Caesar.

As you can see, my old copy of Julius Caesar is coming apart, which happens with paperbacks. It’s Caesar Unbound. I can’t complain, though; it was in pieces when I scooped it off the free books shelves at my local branch library.

I paid $1 each for my new-to-me books. They’re in nearly perfect condition, and might look unread but that the Caesar has one page dog-eared, Portia’s plea to Brutus in Act 2, Scene 1. Why there, I wonder: did it have a special meaning to the former owner or was it merely where he or she stopped reading? That’s the great thing about buying used books, you get your own journey plus someone else’s.

My old copy of Julius Caesar might not be in good enough condition to donate, even though I was quite happy to give it a home as-is. My old copy of Macbeth poses a bigger problem, because it has my penciled notes from different times in my life, plus notes from at least one owner before me. I’m not attached to the book, but I want those notes.

So, I dove back into Macbeth to transcribe them into the new copy, and it was like opening time capsules.

My first set of underlining and notes, from when I was a 20-year-old in school, relate mostly to the play’s themes and are probably received insights; the prior owner noted similar things, which in some cases I merely circled. My later highlights and notes tend to relate either to business or to characters’ emotional states, and mostly reflect my own thoughts at various times. I also found myself capturing three or four Folger footnotes related to Elizabethan practices and folio variations.

So my new copy of Macbeth isn’t just an edition I like better; it’s an edition I’ve made my own.

The end of King Lear

Sunday afternoon, I went to a reading of King Lear hosted by the San Diego Shakespeare Society. It was my first visit, and the group, which had been reading King Lear for months, had come to Act 4 Scene 7, after Cordelia has rescued Lear and he’s just waking up.

Before I attended, I re-read the play and re-watched two different productions of King Lear. I also for the first time looked more deeply into the Quarto differences. All that, combined with hearing the last scenes spoken again yesterday afternoon, made me feel, strongly, that the usual ending is wrong.

I think the play is about redemption. And for that to work, I think Lear’s journey is one from ignorance to awareness. Having him tip into delusion at the end may make the audience feel better (“aww, he died with hope”), but it rings false for the story.

Bear in mind that Shakespeare invented this ending; his source material has Cordelia and Lear winning the battle and ruling jointly over a reunited kingdom. Also bear in mind that the play as it comes down to us is much too long for two hours’ traffic on a stage – directors need to make cuts.

So, as to the ending, my version of King Lear (which I have yet to see outside my imagination’s theater) would dispense with everything from 5.3.311 to 5.3.322, combining Lear’s “Howl, howl” speech with “A plague upon you, murderers, traitors all.” So, as Lear bears Cordelia’s limp body to center stage, his part would read,
Howl, howl, howl! O, you are men of stones.
Had I your tongues and eyes I’d use them so
That heaven’s vault should crack. She’s gone forever!
I know when one is dead and when one lives.
A plague upon you, murderers, traitors all!
I might have saved her; now she’s gone forever!
Cordelia, Cordelia, stay a little. Ha!
What is’t thou sayest?

And here I’d have him pause for a half line of silence as Cordelia says … nothing. It’s a dead echo of her living response to him in 1.1, which Lear is very consciously, painfully re-enacting. Then:
I killed the slave that was a-hanging thee.

And, yes, that cuts the well-known “Her voice was ever soft, gentle, and low – an excellent thing in woman” line, but I’ve never been fond of it and I think it distracts from Cordelia’s later role as a warrior queen. Like her sisters, she’s very much Lear’s child.

Later, when Kent informs Lear that
All’s cheerless, dark, and deadly,
Your eldest daughters have fordone themselves,
And desperately are dead.

And Lear responds,
Ay, so I think.

I think Lear is, in fact, fully aware of the possibilities. Cordelia’s death was the moment of his awakening.

So, when Albany says, about Lear,
He knows not what he says; and vain is it
That we present us to him.

And Edgar agrees,
Very bootless.

That’s merciful, but wishful, thinking on their parts. Lear has an elevated state of Zen-like clarity, seeing beyond what’s right in front of him. It’s something Albany and Edgar lack just now.

Finally, I’d have a re-punctuated Q1 death scene for Lear:
And my poor fool is hanged! No, no, no life!
Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life,
And thou no breath at all? Thou’lt come no more,
Never, never, never, never, never!
Pray you undo this button. Thank you, sir.
O, o, o, o, (dies)

I like that Lear’s final coherent words are words of genuine gratitude to an anonymous servant. The Q2 death scene varies in that it has one more O, which matches the number of nevers, but I like having that fifth O hanging unspoken.

And I would end the play there, the lights going black on a devastated stage filled with bodies. We don’t need to know the post-war management details. The play is named King Lear; it is Lear’s story, and with him the story ends.

Yes, this may seem an ending cheerless, dark, and deadly. But I like that Lear, in death, has all the awareness in the world: he knows Cordelia is dead, dead, dead, and that the ruination of his house and kingdom is all his fault. That’s a glorious, beautiful triumph. Lear is awake; he sees the truth of things as they really are. He doesn’t live to profit by it, but that’s the beauty of it, too. It’s an end, and that achieved, I think, is the end.

One final thought. If ever an evening’s entertainment needed a closing jig, this would be it. And I would have one.