Dido, the Guise, and Lear



I recently read the two of Christopher Marlowe’s plays I had left to read, and I also reread King Lear.

I don’t have much to report about Dido Queen of Carthage.  I’m not a great fan of The Aeneid, so it’s probably my problem, not Marlowe’s.  I was interested by the appearance of phrases from better known plays, such as “winter’s tale”, “hurly-burly”, and most notably, Marlowe’s own, “make me immortal with a kiss”.

The Massacre at Paris was a bit more rewarding.  The Jew of Malta begins with a great monologue on Machiavelli:

Albeit the world think Machevill is dead,
Yet was his soul but flown beyond the Alps,
And now the Guise is dead, is come from France,
To view this land, and frolic with his friends…  

Well this play is about that same Duke of Guise.  With the pretext of defending the church, he murders his political enemies, flouts the will of the king, and sets in motion the famous St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre.  As a card player I liked the lines where the Guise tells himself

Since thou hast all the cards within thy hands,
To shuffle or to cut, take this as surest thing,
That, right or wrong, thou deal thyself a king.

Having read this I can better imagine the poisonous political and religious atmosphere of the times, and appreciate Marlowe’s involvement with it, an involvement that may have cost him his life.

Lear‘s great reputation and my having read it in school are two reasons why I felt particularly guilty for never really having a handle on it.  This rereading helped, but I’m sure I have a long way to go.  This time around it struck me that Shakespeare deliberately conceals a lot of what might lead us to blame the elder sisters more, or even just help us understand the war that takes place mostly off stage. The beginnings of division between the sisters and the threat to Lear’s life are alluded to but never really made concrete.  Perhaps he leaves the politics out of it in order to focus on individuals’ cruelty, which would explain partly why this is such a grueling and mysterious play.

Some serious reading, and some not so serious…

Catalonia (Wikimedia Commons)

I’ve been agonizing over posts on the last couple of books I read, because I don’t think I can do them justice.  I finished Shirer’s excellent Berlin Diary, which I blogged about earlier.  Shirer was able to tour the Netherlands, Belgium, and parts of France immediately after the invasion, before leaving Germany at the end of 1940, his work increasingly obstructed by Nazi censors.  Reading about events from such an immediate perspective raises important questions with an urgency that I don’t think I’ve gotten from regular histories.  Perhaps the most important: How are the Germans and the French (to take just one example) able to live next to each other, not only in peace, but with apparent openness and cooperation?

In a similar vein I picked up George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia.  I couldn’t figure out what to be most astonished at: the story Orwell had to tell, the utterly straightforward way he told it, or the fact that I hadn’t gotten to this great work sooner.  Orwell spent parts of 1936 and 1937 in the trenches fighting against Franco only to be turned on by his own cause.  It was a fascinating mess that played out right before World War II and I’m glad to have learned just a little bit about it.

I’ve been on a bit of a World War II thing in recent years, having also read E. B. Sledge’s account of his fighting in the Pacific and also the novels Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky and The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell.  They were all interesting in various ways.  Next I think I may finally read Human Smoke, Nicholson Baker’s controversial take on the war; I’ve seen Baker speak and if anyone makes pacifism interesting, it’s him.

At the moment I’m reading Sister Miriam Joseph’s Shakespeare’s Use of the Arts of Language.  She takes a very old school liberal arts (grammar, rhetoric and logic) approach to the details of Shakespeare’s language, explaining many, many figures of speech with quotations from the plays.  It’s mainly those quotations that make it fun, especially what she calls vices of language.  I overheard someone affectedly quoting from another language today and immediately thought, “Ah! Soraismus!”

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 123

Memorization has its advantages and disadvantages.  On the one hand it gives me something to think about in odd moments and sometimes rewards me with a sudden insight; on the other, I think I miss out on the context that comes from a straight reading.  The other day I realized I don’t really get Sonnet 123.

No, Time, thou shalt not boast that I do change.
Thy pyramids, built up with newer might,
To me are nothing novel, nothing strange.
They are but dressings of a former sight.
Our dates are brief, and therefore we admire
What thou dost foist upon us that is old,
And rather make them born to our desire
Than think that we before have heard them told.
Thy registers and thee I both defy, 
Not wond’ring at the present nor the past,
For thy records and what we see doth lie,
Made more or less by thy continual haste.
This I do vow, and this shall ever be,
I will be true despite thy scythe and thee.

As I recall, I was attracted to this sonnet for two reasons.  One was the obvious echo of Ecclesiastes: “There is nothing new under the sun.”  I think this reaches for or implies something else I was thinking about at the time, from Lao Tsu, “Without going outside, you may know the whole world.”*  The second reason was that I thought it might be the inspiration of one of will-o’-the-wisps of meaning glimpsed in the random pages of Borges’ Library of Babel, the phrase “O Time thy pyramids”.

What’s odd about this sonnet?  It’s one of those I’ve remarked on before, that has little conspicuously attractive imagery.  Then, between body and couplet (often an interesting transition), the poem switches from largely impersonal (the speaker may start out “I” but comes back to “we”) theorizing on history to strident declaration.  Time in this sonnet is not just the ragged hand of winter defacing the poet’s love (Sonnet 6), but a subtler problem.  In fact, I really think this poem is about something like what I have called “historical imagination”, the way knowledge of history informs our everyday thinking.  I’d like to think that, but I just don’t know what it’s really saying.  Some foolish people see a thing for the first time and think it’s the first time it’s ever happened.  They must not be students of history.  The speaker is too wise for that.  That’s the second quatrain.  But then he would also defy history’s lying records.  So where does that leave him?  With just that bold vow, I suppose.  Is it a convincing renunciation?

There are other sonnets on time, of course, though none quite like this one.  I thought of “When in the chronicle of wasted time,” (106) with which I am familiar enough, but realized on looking back over the sonnets that I had totally forgotten about the one right after 123 that starts

If my dear love were but the child of state,
It might for Fortune’s bastard be unfathered…
It’s tremendous.  I still have a lot to think about.

* Tao Te Ching 47, trs. Feng & English

Measure for Measure and Titus Andronicus

Recently I saw in The New York Review that Nabokov said by the end of his teenage years he had read Tolstoy, Shakespeare, and Flaubert in their native languages.  I can’t really do anything productive with that, but I should consider myself privileged to be able to read just one of those authors.

So I think I’ll make another push on the Shakespeare I have yet to read.  Measure for Measure reminded me of The Tempest, which also has a powerful figure guiding the characters to their deserts.  Unlike The Tempest, though, that figure is not a sorcerer, and the sexual maneuvering of the characters and the sanctimony it arouses are distinctly hard to sympathize with.  I’m not complaining.  Though the highly arranged plot seems at odds with the anti-romantic actions of the characters, it’s an interesting ride.

You could say Titus Andronicus is an interesting ride, too.  Surely this is Shakespeare’s bloodiest play; beyond that I’m not sure what the point is.  Marlowe does this kind of thing with more panache in The Jew of Malta.

Three Reasons I Don’t Read Shakespeare’s Sonnets

I don’t read the sonnets because they are nice love poems.  There are a few of those, but a lot could just as well be called anger poems or excuse poems.  Some of the best sonnets, like “When my love swears that she is made of truth” and “A woman’s face, with nature’s own hand painted” make cynical fun.

I don’t read them because they are particularly good for imagery.  For every “kissing with golden face the meadows green” or “and sable curls all silvered o’er with white” there are three lines like “who do not do the thing they most do show”.

I don’t read them because I think they’re truthful.  He says, “My love shall in my verse ever live young”, but who sits around thinking about how attractive Shakespeare’s beloved was?

That is to say, I’ve spent quite a bit of time on the sonnets, but I find it really hard to say why.


I relax…

I don’t mean to keep writing these little essays.  It can’t be kept up, for one thing.  I started reading Livy this past week.  I’m sure I don’t know what I’m getting into.  Reading it straight through will take long enough, but then there are the connections to everything else.  Soon I can pick up Machiavelli’s Discourses.  I’m looking forward to a conversation with The Prince’s steadier brother.  Three or four of the biggest players so far in Livy have biographies in Plutarch, so I’ll need to get on that.

old map of rome

Livy’s account of Coriolanus, the Roman general who turned against his city, is interesting, and really gains from being given its setting in the ongoing struggle between the patricians and plebeians. Of course I couldn’t let this pass without rewatching Ralph Fiennes’ underappreciated 2011 version of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus.  I say underappreciated because it’s a very good movie and didn’t get a wide release, but when I went online to see if anyone else had noticed that the Volscians seemed to be Christians, I didn’t have any trouble finding weird reviews.  This adaptation uses the look of modern protests, soldiers, and ubiquitous news cameras to great emotional effect, and so it’s not surprising that various takes on it would be politically charged.  I find Coriolanus somewhat sympathetic, if far less so in Fiennes’ version, but still clearly a monster.

I’m still theoretically working on Sonya Kovalevsky’s autobiography, which I got on Google Books, but I may not get back to it until I get on the train next week.  For some reason I find myself most likely to read books on my computer on long train trips.  So far, not much math, but interesting anyhow.  I also just picked up The Revenge of Geography, by Robert Kaplan.  The article in the New York Review piqued me with its evasiveness on contemporary politics and strange emphasis on the provenance of certain ideas, or cliches, in geography.  Anyone who’s read Dune already knows that desert nomad types are the ne plus ultra of badassery.  I’m skeptical, but I like maps and think a lot about how we come to understand history, so I’ll give it a try.

Write it Down, My Friends

What little I manage to put up here would never have come together at all if I didn’t keep a lot of notes.  By long experimentation I’ve hit upon a combination of lists and journals that seems to complement the way I think.  I guess I know this because I don’t find myself unable to locate something I know I have written or starting new lists only to forget about them, at least not as much as I used to.  I don’t claim to have done anything very important with this, but once in a while I manage to gather up the threads of something I’ve been thinking about for a while and at least make myself think that my reading has not all been a waste of time.  Considering the little vogue for affected confessions to the effect that nobody remembers what they read (see How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read), maybe this is an accomplishment.  I’m not saying reading for pleasure or whatever is shameful, just that trying to remember what you read isn’t necessarily stupid.

Shakespeare, of course, has been over this (Sonnet 77):

Thy glass will show thee how thy beauties wear,
Thy dial how thy precious minutes waste;
The vacant leaves thy mind’s imprint will bear,
And of this book this learning mayst thou taste:
The wrinkles which thy glass will truly show,
Of mouthed graves will give thee memory;
Thou, by thy dial’s shady stealth mayst know,
Time’s thievish progress to eternity.
Look what thy memory cannot contain;
Commit to these waste blanks and thou shalt find
Those children nursed, delivered from thy brain,
To take a new acquaintance of thy mind.
These offices, so oft as thou wilt look,
Shall profit thee, and much enrich thy book.

A trifle compared to some of the other sonnets, yet formally perfect, memorable, and more than enough to make me wonder why I want to say anything else in praise of diaries and the like.  (Not my observation, but it makes the most sense as a kind of occasional poem inscribed in a blank book that Shakespeare gave as a gift.)

I only just realized that the phrase “Look what thy memory cannot contain” can be read two ways.  The more obvious, to me, is that the recipient should use the gift as a journal, to help himself remember.  This is borne out by his going back and taking “new acquaintance” with what has been written.  But “thy memory” is not just what you remember, what stays in your head; we also use it to mean what is remembered about you after you die.  This interpretation has the advantage of cementing the connection between the book and what might have seemed to be a separate theme of the poem, namely wearing beauty and mouthed graves.  In addition to pointing out the private advantage to one person of keeping a journal, it also points out the public advantage: there is much that the collective memory cannot contain and even the memory of beloved friends would be lost to time, but the book offers hope.

Loss and public benefit are both apposite to Thinking the Twentieth Century by the historians Tony Judt and Timothy Snyder.   It was put together out of a series of conversations shortly before Judt’s untimely death in 2010.  In each chapter, some aspect of Judt’s biography is drawn out into something wider.  The two are mainly historians of Europe, so the book really focuses on World War II and communism, with excursions into the history of Zionism, liberalism, the war in Iraq, and so forth.  It’s important stuff.  Being mainly an intellectual history, a discussion of why people might have thought what they did and who was right and who was wrong, it seems only fitting that Judt talks about his life, schools, teachers, and colleagues.  I was surprised by Judt’s apparent apology, at the end, for intruding in some way on history which ought to be written impersonally.  He was being modest.  I have no doubt that his reminiscences enrich the work.