Posts tagged ‘Poetry’

Interdisciplinarity

I think? Maybe “interdisciplinariness”? Whatever. It’s beside the point.

Duane made an excellent post at ShakespeareGeek about how Shakespeare is taught to young students, and whether or not they should be expected to provide analyses based on history, literary theory and the like. Now, let’s not beat around the bush: No grade-school kid enjoys learning about British succession law, or the conflict between Protestants and Catholics, and how those things influenced Shakespeare’s writing. And as Duane correctly points out, it’s this style of teaching that makes kids think Shakespeare is dry, dull and outdated. Nobody wants them to think that.

But should we eliminate the literary element entirely? I don’t think so. I’ve sometimes encountered an attitude that Shakespeare was just an entertainer, not a commentator on his times, a literary master, etc. And he was all those things.

Those who read my blog regularly know that I’m fascinated by literary analysis of Shakespeare, but that’s not my sole interest. I often compare my love of Shakespeare to my love of a person. When you fall in love, you love the other person in many ways: intellectually, emotionally, physically, psychologically, etc. But are they all distinct feelings? Can you say, “Here is where my intellectual love begins and my emotional love ends?” Of course not. It’s one complex, inter-related feeling. My love of Shakespeare is the same. I don’t love Shakespeare analytically sometimes and aesthetically other times. They feed off of each other.

I thus don’t think any understanding or appreciation of a play is complete without some analysis. Say you are teaching Othello. But say also that you fail to teach your kids about the tense relationship between European Christendom and the Ottoman Turks, and how that drives the play. No, you don’t need to dedicate hours upon hours to studying the political climate. But you do need to bring it up and give the children some background (and, perhaps, draw modern parallels, like the current tension between the West and the Middle East). This ought to help the students appreciate the play more, not less, because it makes more sense in light of that knowledge. It speaks on more levels. At the same time, if you teach Othello only as an exhibit in a history museum and not a passionate love story, you’ll make it dry and lame. The combination of both is what gives Othello its energy and spirit.

Even from a theatrical standpoint, the same is true. I cannot speak from experience, having only a slight background in theatre, but every actor or director I’ve spoken to (and I’ve spoken to many) has told me that one cannot be a good actor without studying the history of the play one is acting in.

Which brings me back to my original point: Interdisciplinaritivitism. The very first discussion Susan and I had on our podcast was about the fact that literary experts and theatrical experts tend to look down on the other. But both groups would benefit if they cooperated. Shakespeare is one of history’s great geniuses, because he wrote on thousands of levels simultaneously. Why do him the injustice of ignoring those levels?

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Shakespeare Pwns Plato

Did I just use the word “pwns” in a post title? ::Looks up.:: Yeah, I did. Wow. I’m becoming more internet savvy every day here.

In Plato’s Republic, the Greek philosopher writes that, in his ideal republic, poets would not be allowed. He provides a number of reasons for this, but among them is the belief that poetry is not truth. Plato believed that there was an ultimate reality, a “form” for everything, and the best goal was to get closer to this form by doing away with representation. Poetry, he argued, was a step removed from reality, because poets sought to create representations of reality and present them as truth.

In Hamlet, Shakespeare deals with this theme. Whether he was responding directly to Plato or simply addressing the same subject, I cannot say. But Hamlet, when planning to show Claudius a play, says, “I’ll have these players / Play something like the murder of my father” (II.ii.533-4). Shakespeare didn’t make many mistakes, so the phrase “something like” is telling. Hamlet is acknowledging that the play won’t actually be the murder of his father. It will be a representation of that reality. But what purpose does this play-within-a-play serve? Its goal is to reveal a truth. And it does so. Shakespeare is, I think, commenting on the validity and effectiveness of theatre and poetry. A good poem or play can teach us a truth, even if it is fictional itself.

I’m sure most, if not all, Shakespeare lovers will agree. We learn about ourselves and our world by reading and seeing Shakespeare. Can I get an Amen?

Metric variations in “Henry V”

Since I started working with Susan Guthrie, I’ve been paying more and more attention to verse form in Shakespeare. Susan is a big believer in classical verse form, and I’m picking that up from her, and discovering some incredible new things.

For example, I was reading Henry V recently, and came upon noticable variations in one of his famous speeches (IV.i.282-299):

O God of battles! steel my soldiers’ hearts;
Possess them not with fear; take from them now
The sense of reckoning, if the opposed numbers
Pluck their hearts from them. Not to-day, O Lord,
O, not to-day, think not upon the fault
My father made in compassing the crown!
I Richard’s body have interred anew;
And on it have bestow’d more contrite tears
Than from it issued forced drops of blood:
Five hundred poor I have in yearly pay,
Who twice a-day their wither’d hands hold up
Toward heaven, to pardon blood;
And I have built two chantries,
Where the sad and solemn priests sing still
For Richard’s soul. More will I do;
Though all that I can do is nothing worth,
Since that my penitence comes after all,
Imploring pardon
.

Notice the variation on the four lines in which Henry talks about what he’s done and what he will do in Richard’s memory:

Toward heaven, to pardon blood;
And I have built two chantries,
Where the sad and solemn priests sing still
For Richard’s soul. More will I do;

I’ve never been much of a believer in the hype around Henry as a great patriotic hero. Personally, I find the play that bears his name to be more ironic than promotional with regards to patriotism. For example, when Henry says that if any commoner fights at Agincourt, the battle will “gentle his condition” (IV.iii.64), does he mean it? It doesn’t seem so, given that only the nobles get their names specially mentioned when Henry finds out about the English death toll (IV.viii.101-104). Moreover, why is this “mirror of all Christian kings” (II.Cho.6) praying to a pagan god in the above speech?

Anyway, my point here is that, if indeed Henry is not entirely honest and genuine, the varied lines in his speech may indicate dishonesty; ie, he’s not genuinely sorry about Richard’s death or his father’s actions, nor does he truly intend to do the penance he claims. (After all, nobody in this play seems to acknowledge the fact that, due to Henry’s father’s usurpation, even if the King of England is legitimately the King of France, Henry is legitimately neither.)

Some editors choose to compile those lines to turn them into proper blank verse. When read as three lines, they work well:

Toward heaven, to pardon blood; and I have built
Two chantries, where the sad and solemn priests
Sing still for Richard’s soul. More will I do;

These were printed as four lines in the First Folio (see here), but it’s well known that printers would often break up lines to take up space when printing a book. So perhaps when Shakespeare wrote those lines, they were in iambic pentameter, and this whole long rant was meaningless.

What do you all think of Henry and this speech?