Archive for the Context Category

You Can’t Handle the Truth

Posted in Context, Henry IV Part 1 with tags , , , on 2014/04/07 by mattermind

In trying to make sense of Henry IV, I’m forced to confront larger issues that drive much deeper but are merely tangential to the play.  For instance, how much should the truth matter, especially when these works in particular are called the histories?

I have touched on this subject while reading Richard III.  But now it rears its ugly head again in a big way and I’m not sure what to make of it.  Isaac Asimov, for instance, points out that Prince Hal and Hotspur enjoyed more of a father-son relationship than that of rival brothers.  In fact, Hotspur was two years older than King Edward himself.

It seems Shakespeare couldn’t resist making changes that any modern screenwriter would nod and sympathize with.  These are the very points of contention that critics and fans of the novel (or historical accuracy) will inevitably bring up while slamming the said work with such comments as, “This isn’t anything like the book,” or, “That’s not how it happened.”

Well, Edward IV is another example of this, only by now so much time has passed that the actual history serves almost as a footnote, a marginal amendment applicable to scholars and wonks only.  For the rest of the civilized world, what Shakespeare dramatized has become the gold standard, interchangeable for truth.  But should we be concerned about that?

One could argue that, in making the changes, Shakespeare aspired for dramatic truth – a different form of truth, naturally, but the one nearest to his heart and talents as a playwright.  Why should he concern himself with getting all the niggling details correct?  Especially when that would mean the sacrifice of a good metaphor, irony or parallel construction.  Fudge here, compress there.  That’s how the game works.  And any reasonably literate audience ought to know that.

So why bother calling them the histories then?  Why not fictionalize them entirely, invent characters wholecloth or “based on a true story” instead of trying to have it both ways by capitalizing on the general public’s vague understanding of real events and then distorting them with hyperstylized dialogue and action?

Ultimately, I cannot escape the gravity of this rhetorical black hole.  Shakespeare wrote the plays that we call the histories which historians know are based on errors of source and errors of choice.  But then there are the plays, masterpieces unto themselves.  Why rail at Shakespeare when we can benefit from both with a little education or insight?


Don’t Know Much About History…

Posted in Context, Richard II with tags on 2014/03/18 by mattermind

I thought it would be a simple matter to make the jump from King John to Richard II. And then I ran into the 100 Years War, the Black Plague, the rise of chivalry, the Peasant’s Revolt, the growing power of parliament…eh, boy.

The decision to use Shakespeare’s historical plays as a springboard into English history has turned out to be a monumental decision with life-changing ramifications. My entire sense of the period between the fall of Rome and the flourishing of the Italian Renaissance has now been irrevocably changed.

I have no idea how a reasonably educated person with a Bachelor’s degree in German and a Master’s in the Great Books could have escaped these crucial concepts. I mean, I studied Western Civ as an undergraduate at the University of Oregon and UCLA. But somehow the meaning of it all, how it tied together escaped me.

To repeat: yes, I knew about the majority of these ideas individually. I recall cramming for tests on Medieval history that included the 100 Years War and Peasant’s Revolt. But I couldn’t tell you then and surely didn’t remember now what started them, what they were about, or why they remain important to this day. Or how the Magna Carta led indirectly to the rise of parliament and that the Church had been fractured long before the Protestant Reformation. Maybe I just needed distance. And maturity. And not to be forcing it down my own throat for an exam.

I used to think the Dark Ages were pretty much “dark” until the rediscoveries of the Renaissance and scientific revolution. Now I know that the process was much different, that changes were occurring all along, and that the thread did not run exclusively through continental Europe.

I have a lot of work to do! I’ll pick up with my reading of Richard II just as soon as I have a grasp on the context of what’s going on during that period.

This is the reason we must revolutionize education and make it more integrated, synergistic, chronological and contextual. Whoever came up with the notion of isolating subjects and teaching them as individual units must have pioneered the assembly line. There’s just no way you can really understand — truly comprehend — the sweep, scope and overall meaning of art, science, philosophy, poetry, music, you-name-it without invoking the gestalt, the zeitgeist, the (why isn’t there a proper English word for this?) Great Conversation of history.

Okay, enough of my spiel. At least you got the great Sam Cooke out of it. 🙂

Interactive Map of Shakespeare’s London

Posted in Context, Shakespeareana with tags on 2014/02/23 by mattermind

I’m not sure what the intellectual equivalent of “cool” is, but whatever it happens to be, this is it.

Talk about Shakespeare’s age deals mostly with abstractions, referencing ideas and history that have receded into historical memory. But there’s nothing like a map to make the past come alive again.

While it’s something less than a Thomas Guide (Do these even exist? Kids, ask your parents.) and not quite a Garmin that will take you to the nearest Starbucks ale house, you will find yourself clicking various places to discover what they were all about.

Start HERE

Until holograms become widely available, I suppose this will just have to do.

Alfred the Great Discovery Rivals Richard III Find

Posted in Context, News with tags , , , on 2014/02/22 by mattermind



It is said that when you learn a new vocabulary word you suddenly see it everywhere.  The same must apply to history because otherwise I would have missed this story entirely.

While all the attention lately has been paid (and rightly so) to the discovery of Richard III’s body buried under a Leicester car park, an even more astonishing bit of history has surfaced with the possible identification of a pelvic bone from Alfred the Great.

This probably won’t mean a whole lot unless you’re either a) British b) an historian c) an archaeologist but nevertheless, if you’re even curious about any of the above you might wish to learn more about why this is so important.

For those who wish to cut to the chase, here are LINK1 and LINK2 to summaries in the British tabloids press.  I know, I know.  I’m as scandalized as you by the graphics and blatant “click me” opportunities.  But somewhere in there is serious journalism and a story worthy of worldwide reporting.

Mind you, as I mentioned previously, I’m new to all this Medieval English history stuff but it doesn’t take a genius to recognize how Alfred earned the nickname.

If you haven’t clicked above (seriously, why haven’t you?) you are now relying on my even briefer and less-informative summation.  But here goes:

a) When England was overrun by large contingents of Vikings, only one kingdom defiantly stood its ground.  Yup, that would be Wessex, led by you-know-who.

b) Alfred learned his lessons both on and off the battlefield.  After near defeat, he reformulated the local armies so barrons would spend half the time away from their domains.  He thought not only in terms of what was best militarily, but what would allow his kingdom to remain vital and productive.

c) He commissioned the first English navy, hitting upon the idea that it might be a good idea to defeat the Vikings at sea before they reached British soil.  While his ship plans weren’t the most seaworthy, he initiated concepts for successive development.

d) At a time when few people were literate outside monasteries, he learned Latin and rounded up scholars to translate texts into the vernacular.  He was especially fond of Boethius’ Consolations of Philosophy and did the work on that text himself.

e) By fathering a competent son, he ensured that his ideas would carry on.  Edward the Elder reconquered the east coast and paved the way for a peace and prosperity under a united England, the first time it had been so since the collapse of the Roman Empire.

So yeah, it’s a pretty big deal.  And okay, so it’s not exactly Shakespeare news.  But I need neither Kevin Bacon nor six degrees to connect the dots. 

The Tao of Shakespeare

Posted in Context with tags , , , on 2014/02/16 by mattermind
Illustration of the Four Humors from Wikipedia

Illustration of the Four Humors from Wikipedia

Yesterday I set off in search of a better understanding of the humors – Melancholic, Sanguine, Phlegmatic, Choleric – and how Shakespeare employed them to shape his characters.  Today I am reminded of one of my favorite books: The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff, and how these two disparate streams of thought may very well be related.

In the Tao of Pooh, Tigger, Winnie, Piglet, Owl and Eyeore are shown to embody particular personality types: Owl is the thinker, Piglet the worrier, Tigger the optimist, Eyeore the pessimist and Winnie the Taoist who bumbles happily along as “a bear of little brain.”

Tao of Pooh

This seems comparable to how Shakespeare considered personalities based upon the four “humors,” a Greek concept that endured well past the Renaissance until human bodies were finally allowed to be dissected and thereby mechanistically understood, transforming the philosophy of medicine.

According to the ancient approach, there were four dominant “types” or humors (as mentioned above).  Here is a famous example from the era, Robert Burton’s legendary Anatomy of Melancholy as featured in the display case at the Norris Medical Library at USC.

The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton

The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton

Yet who expresses Melancholia better than this guy?


Similar comparisons can be made with the other humors. Here is a chart on Choleric from USC:


The Taming of the Shrew was offered to illustrate, but I think the point could just as easily have been made by this fellow:


The Phlegmatic type is characterized by being centered in the mind. Who conveys that better than this guy?


My personal favorite humor is Sanguine. Here is a shot of the display case from the Norris Library. (If not for the glare, I would have used more of these in this post.)


For my money, nobody embodies that attitude better than:


There are many ways of considering Shakespeare and the humors.  This is just one of them.  My post in no way intends to make light of a serious historical concept, but rather tries to simplify what can otherwise seem obtuse and impenetrable by making connections to contemporary personality types that are universally familiar.

Medical philosophy has come a long way since physicians utilized blood letting and bile sampling in order to diagnose and treat “ill-humored” patients.  While the basis for these ideas still lingers in Chinese medicine and what are now considered “alternative” remedies, we all retain a semblance of such broad characteristics when assessing the behaviors of friends, colleagues, acquaintances, and strangers.  They even help us gain insight into ourselves.

The Tao of Pooh puts it best:

Pooh Philosophy

Context Is King

Posted in Context with tags , on 2014/01/22 by mattermind

While I grapple with the vagaries of English history, I wanted to post a few of Shakespeare’s contemporaries and near-contemporaries because of how they illuminate the period in which he lived.

American education, to its detriment, involves woefully little cross-referencing between subjects. No matter what class we take, we are presented a tableau of  authors, scientists, mathematicians and statesmen as if they lived hermetically-sealed lives, significant only within their discipline. And that’s when chronology is broached at all!

Shakespeare may stand as an intellectual titan of his age, but he was hardly standing alone. How many know that the great Galileo was born the same year?

Thus, I offer for you here a far-from exhaustive list of great individuals who lived within a century of Shakespeare.

If I have left anybody out that I shouldn’t have (and I’m pretty certain that I have), please drop a comment and I will amend this list.

John Calvin (1509–1564)

Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1525-1569)

Giovanni Palestrina (1525–1594)

Michel Montaigne (1533–1592)

Miguel Cervantes (1547-1616)

Giordano Bruno (1548–1600)

Francis Bacon (1561–1626)

Galileo Galilei (1564–1642)

Pieter Bruegel the Younger (1564-1638)

William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643)

Johannes Kepler (1571–1630)

Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679)

René Descartes (1596–1650)

Rembrant van Rijn (1606-1669)

Shakespeare & the King James Bible

Posted in Context, Language, Shakespeareana with tags , , on 2014/01/19 by mattermind

King James


Anyone even vaguely familiar with the Christian Bible knows that there has never been a translation yet that surpassed the King James.

What nobody ever mentions – and something I had never before considered – is that the KJV Bible was created and produced at the very pinnacle of Shakespeare’s career. Not by him, of course. Though there are legends about his alleged involvement.

But how many people, when they praise the unmatched linguistic beauty of that bible, know it sprang from the very same time and place as Shakespeare?

This is from Wikipedia:

The King James Version (KJV), commonly known as the Authorized Version (AV) or King James Bible (KJB), is an English translation of the Christian Bible for the Church of England begun in 1604 and completed in 1611.

Now that I know this, it makes me wonder how much of Shakespeare’s eloquence was “in the air” during that momentous decade of literary achievement… not to take anything away from him, but rather to better understand the context of early 17th century England.

UPDATE: Thanks to Karla Tipton for alerting me to a documentary called The Story of English. The following is an excerpt from episode 3 titled “Muse of Fire” dealing specifically with the English language around Shakespeare’s time:

The documentary in its entirety may be viewed HERE.

Who knows how destiny ultimately works, or why certain people happen to be born at just the right moment in time. Such questions are not mere idle speculation. Famous authors and philosophers such as Hegel and Leo Tolstoy famously pondered whether great individuals make history or whether history makes great individuals.

It’s fun (and unnerving) to consider such possibilities as: had William Shakespeare never been born, would history have invented somebody else just like him? Or: if William Shakespeare had written in any other age, how would his work have sounded?

With the coincidence of Shakespeare’s career high point occurring exactly during production of the King James Bible, it’s tempting to imagine that Shakespeare had a hand in the KJV. And it turns out that such legends exist.

From Wikipedia:

For several decades a popular rumor has persisted that William Shakespeare placed his mark on the translated text of Psalm 46 that appears in the King James Bible, although scholars view this as unlikely. By coincidence, the 46th word from the beginning of Psalm 46 is “shake” and the 46th word from the end (omitting the liturgical mark “Selah”) is “spear”. Shakespeare was in King James’ service during the preparation of the King James Bible, and he was 46 years old in 1611 when the translation was completed.

I need to investigate further. But now and forevermore, Shakespeare and the King James Bible will be linked together in my head and heart, if only by a bizarre coincidence of time and space.

In a related note, I do not believe in coincidence!

To Make Much of Time

Posted in Context on 2014/01/01 by mattermind

New year’s day is the perfect moment to meditate on time for obvious reasons, but especially in lieu of the opening two chapters of Peter Ackroyd’s Shakespeare: the Biography.

He presents us with mortality figures from Shakespeare’s age that boggle the contemporary mind. For example, that the average lifespan was 47 years!

Think on this a moment. Reflect on how your priorities would change if you knew this in advance. Not only would you have to be lucky or rich (or both) to survive childhood, but the odds of making it to old age were slim and next to none.

Throw in the hazards of childbirth, the absence of labor laws, the lack of social safety nets, the lack of scientific research and what you end up with is a pretty grim backdrop for everyday life in 16th century Britain.

The shock to my system comes from how much I take for granted here and now. Forty seven seems young and certainly sounds so when a celebrity (or anyone) dies around that age.

Forty seven is the age of football coaches or young presidents and ambitious CEO and actors entering the prime of their careers. I mean, Brad Pitt just turned 50 for crying out loud. U2 just recently hit 50 and those guys are about to drop a new album and launch an ambitious world tour.

What would YOU do if you could only reasonably expect 50 years out of life? Would you make the same decisions? Take each day at the same pace?

No wonder the globe was not teeming with nearly 7 billion people! How could it, when few survived childhood and those who did rarely achieved old age?

What effect does this have on our understanding of Shakespeare and his works? And how will knowing this affect mine???

Shakespeare was born in 1564. How many of you were born around 1964?

Shakespeare died in 1616. Now think on that and make much use of time.