Archive for the References Category

I’m Kickin’ My Ass…

Posted in References with tags , , on 2010/01/31 by mattermind

For those who don’t recognize the quote, it comes from a funny scene in Liar, Liar during which Jim Carrey’s character beats himself up — literally pummels himself — in the bathroom for being unable to lie in the courtroom.

While I haven’t resorted to physical violence against myself, I have taken on three staggering intellectual works (in addition to the Shakespeare) that are knocking me senseless by their brilliance.

They are:

A stunning work of human accomplishment itself, this book manages somehow to be both statistically geeky and poetic about the glories of our achievements since the harnessing of fire. While concentrating primarily on the last 10,000 years in particular, it examines the hows and whys underlying the best of who we are.

For the Randian in all of us, rather than those who wish to downplay our better aspects, it celebrates the monumental cultural and technological shifts that have characterized both our artistic and scientific progress as a species. Yes, he dares to use the word progress. This is an unapologic survey of the human race on a gargantuan scale. A monumental undertaking and an utterly glorious read.

And then:

This book was given to me as a Christmas present by somebody who wanted to get rid of me for awhile (“Here, kid, go run along now and play with this.”). A candy-coated concoction of rigorous scholarship and Di Vinci Code cleverness, it goes down like a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup packed with 25 grams of whey protein. I keep saying, one more page, one more page until my mind hits tilt and I am forced to put the damned thing down.

It reveals what a complete moron I am regarding intellectual history from the turn of the millennium (no, not 2001) through the Reformation and Renaissance. It exposes my ignorance and fills in all the missing pieces between the collapse of Rome and the modernizing energies released by the American and French Revolutions. I covered some of this stuff in college but the 11th and 12th Century got short shrift. Who knew there was so much going on that would change the world?

And last — and pertaining most significantly to this blog:

I mention it again because I finally started the darn thing. I’d only been putting it off because it looked so imposing. Then I caught the sheer genius of its construction: 518 pages divided into 91 chapterlets — I call them that only because they average about five pages each, obviously, but wow, do they pack a punch.

I’m reading one chapter for every act of a play I cover. But now that I’ve started, I’m finding the book too irresistable to put down. It’s filled with marvelous biographical writing about a man we supposedly know so little about. I love that it doesn’t digress into erudite but frivolous bogs. It’s succinct, bold, captivating, larky, and comprehensive in its sweep. Yes, there may be a few surmises made here or there, as well as conjecture that could get dismissed in a court of law. But screw that — here are projections, extrapolations, interpolations and musings based upon what we do know that make what we don’t a lot less painful to swallow.

I quote from a passage that just lit me up:

By four o’clock in the morning, the town had awakened; by five, the streets were filled with people. The traders and labourers breakfasted at eight, and took their dinner or luncheon at noon; they finished their work at seven in the evening at the end of a fourteen-hour day. The Statute of Artificers, however, promulgated in 1563, allowed one hour of sleep after the noonday meal. There were no holidays but the various holy days.

The average lifespan of the period for a man then was only 47 years. So Shakespeare, though he died at 52, outlived the statistical norm by 5 years. I don’t know about you people, but I’m floored by information like this.

Together, these three works collectively kick my ass and put me in my intellectual place. I’m dwarfed by their brilliance and overwhelmed by the magnitude by which they broaden my scope as I look out onto the world.

It’s an ass-kicking, all right, but a good and much needed one to be sure. I’m humbled and grateful for the service.

As Nietzsche reminds, what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. But he forgot to mention that it might also make us feel like a doofus in the process.

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Bohemian Rhapsody

Posted in References with tags , , , , on 2010/01/24 by mattermind

I’m Hungarian by birth, and gypsy by disposition. So I was amazed and enlightened by a passage from Isaac Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare regarding The Winter’s Tale.

I only read up to the parts I’ve covered on my own, in case you’re wondering. His commentary is more background than literary analysis, anyway, but I find that it adds greater richness to the experience, as evidenced by this passage:

Shortly after 1400, bands of strange people reached central Europe. They were swarthy-skinned nomads, who spoke a language that was not like any in Europe. Some Europeans thought they came from Egypt and they were called “gypsies” in consequence. (They are still called that in the United States, but their real origin may have been India.)

When the gypsies reached Paris in 1427, the French knew only that they had come from central Europe. There were reports that they had come from Bohemia, and so the French called them Bohemians (and still do).

The gypsy life seemed gay and vagabondish and must have been attractive to those bound to heavy labor or dull routine. The term “Bohemian” therefore came to be applied to artists, writers, show people, and others living an unconentional and apparently vagabondish life. Bohemia came to be an imaginary story land of romance.

Consider me enlightened. Mr. Asimov strikes again!

A is for Asimov

Posted in References on 2010/01/12 by mattermind

I finished up Hamlet a little early for reasons mentioned below, but also in order to spend some quality time with secondary sources — knowing full well that Hamlet’s reach extends way, way beyond my paygrade.

The goal of this blog is to read Shakespeare for myself, and to encourage others who may have dreamt of doing likewise (but got intimidated by the size and scope of the project and have put it off).

Because he looms so large in the cultural pantheon, Shakespeare can seem utterly overwhelming if you stop and look down for even a moment to consider what you’re attempting, the sheer audaciousness of the mental feat. Shelves of books will remind you of how much you’re missing by trusting your own two eyes and ears. It may seem as if the reaches of the Academy are designed to make you feel stupid at every turn.

But you have to do it anyway.

I am reminded along these lines of Bono during Rattle & Hum: “This is a song Charles Manson stole from The Beatles. Were stealing it back.”

You can’t be afraid to take all that accumulated scholarship and flush it down the toilet, if only temporarily, to allow yourself the freedom to misread in a state of benevolent grace. Do not be willfully ignorant, mind. But for the span of a play, do like Luther and profess your ignorance boldly. (For me that’s an easy one. I’m the biggest idiot on the planet.)

It’s not that secondary sources do not have much to offer. They have tons, literally and metaphorically. But it can get in the way of your own appreciation of the subject. We already have too many experts in every subject known to mankind.

How easily we forget that Shakespeare is damn good as well as great — that he’s moving and maddening as much as he is marvelous. We can’t sit back and allow him to become the private property of the symphony-going set. He’s public domain, damn it. Which is why it’s great that films like Ten Things I Hate About You and Romeo & Juliet keep manifesting.

That said, I have to make a HUGE exception for the heartbreaking work of staggering genius that Isaac Asimov created for the world in his Guide to Shakespeare. I don’t know how anybody found the time to do what he did, and so well. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isaac_Asimov)

It’s sadly out of print, for reasons I can’t possibly fathom. A have to give kudos to the younger version of me who picked it up whenever it was available, probably at a B. Dalton Bookstore back when they still existed.

What makes Asimov’s guide so special is that it reads like a Discovery Network episode on each play, as much about the historical background as it is literary interpretation. We get to find out reasons for the settings to each of the plays, the details of ordinary life that ground the works in a particular time and place.

It can get fussy, I’ll admit. Published in two volumes (or two-in-one, like mine), it stretches out to over 800 pages including index and will serve as a great doorstop between readings. That is, if you are able to put it down.

Minds like Asimov’s are a benefit to the whole human race. They do not erect unnecessary barriers to knowledge, but hoist ladders and ropes by which we all may climb a little higher. Standing on his shoulders, you see farther and you feel safer — snugly perched on the mast of a man who wants to protect and guide you rather than strip you down and flog you and make you walk the plank for what you do not know.

Call him a populist, call him a dabbler in a field outside his specialty, call him whatever you like. Just call him (if you can find him). The world needs more men like him, espcially as knowledge becomes so diffuse and wisdom that much harder to come by.

God bless you, Mr. Asimov. Rest in peace, wherever you are. Or light up the night sky, as you did when you were here among us.

The Snowball Effect

Posted in References on 2009/12/30 by mattermind

I wandered Barnes & Noble today, randomly browsing but also to keep abreast of the Shakespeare cottage industry.

As Warren Buffett will tell you, the “snowball effect” aka compounding — as in interest — can work for you and against you. With me, secondary sources (as noted previously) are a mixed blessing. I love ’em, but that love affair can get out of hand. So far, I’m doing my best to steer clear, but unofficially my appetite for certain titles is growing.

I already have Isaac Asimov’s brilliant guide to the plays, as well as Harold Bloom and others. I won’t go into details now, but my wishlist is expanding like Santa’s waistline: the Ackroyd biography, Frank Kermode’s Age of Shakespeare, the DK Essential Shakespeare Handbook, the Oxford Companion, Shakespeare’s Philosophy by Colin McGinn and Shakespeare After All by Marjorie Garber.

Don’t worry, those of you who plan on reading with me. I’m not about to saddle you with outside reading material. Call it extra credit if you like… though I doubt in all honesty that I’ll have the time to get around to much of it myself.

I want to, mind. But if you add that to the task at hand, it becomes rather overwhelming. If considered in a certain light and from a certain distance, the whole thing might seem preposterous and I might not even begin. What purpose would that serve?

Part of me is afraid, I guess, that this year will seem unfulfilling if I leave all this background material on the table. It’s not enough to have read Shakespeare, if you can’t make much sense of him and just muddle through. I would prefer to get to know him like a good friend — as much as one can say that of a staggering genius, of course, but to at least come away with the feeling that each play is within my grasp.

You can’t conquer the Louvre in one trip, and I’m afraid that’s just the way it has to be. I learned long ago on a trip to the Smithsonian that there was no way in hell I could survey the whole damned thing and come away with any meaning — that the better alternative was to pick out certain works and camp in front of them for extended periods. If all you’ll ever have is one whirlwind 3-hour journey, well then you make the most of it and be grateful. But it’s best to clear the air here and now that I in no way expect this year to be exhaustive, even if we manage to read each and every play in the canon.

As Harold Bloom might put it, Shakespeare is a universe. And for a universe, an entire lifetime would not suffice!

I already wish I were devoting myself exclusively to this project, and wonder why I did not risk that level of commitment. Then too, like the majority of you who pop in here, I have a life (sort of) that has to integrate with this fool’s errand.

My requirement for any outside sources — just so you know — is that it be informative and engaging at a reasonably popular level. I abhor scholasticism when it leads to pomposity and Lord knows there’s enough of that.

A lot of this is experimental, but this much I can say going in: the plan is to read each work fresh and to ignore the towering criticism that has accumulate in the 450 odd years since the Bard was born.

If that doesn’t cut it, I’ll call for help. Feel free to provide suggestions of your own and to add comments as we work our way through each text. It may feel at times like we’re reinventing the wheel but so be it. Higher authorities will always be there if you so choose.

Reading Shakespeare on your own is one of those tasks in life that — I’m assuming — you never forget. Like climbing Everest. Swimming the English Channel. Sailing solo around the world. Only less hazardous to your health, I hope.

But we’ll soon see.

Secondary Sources

Posted in References on 2009/12/22 by mattermind

As mentioned earlier, I’m a graduate of St. John’s College in Annapolis where books form the curriculum and discussion is the heart and soul of the program.

While I won’t require a “Mr.” or “Ms.” to precede each comment, I will attempt as much as possible to read each work independently of the massive Shakespeare cottage industry that exists around him.

For those not familar with St. John’s, this might seem like willful ignorance. Why would anybody reinvent the wheel? The short answer: to think for ourselves. It’s an expression of faith in the text and in each other… Besisdes, the secondary marketplace of ideas is not going anywhere. It’s as close as a mouseclick away.

That said, I’m not shying away from the amazing scholarship that’s been done. I simply realize that I have to be selective in my choices or I risk becoming overwhelmed. I might legitmately ask myself what indeed I’m doing here, since so many better minds have completed the journey and offered far more to the world than I.

At the top of the mounting stack of books that I can’t wait to read has to be this: Peter Ackroyd’s stunning biography. I say stunning even though I haven’t read it yet because I picked it up at Barnes and Noble and literally couldn’t put it down.

It was one of those bookish adventures where you clean out the shelf of relevant material and carry it to the cafe to sort through. From an initial mountain of a dozen titles, I fereted the choices down to six, then three… but it became evident that this one title would be the one.

I love the texture of the pages… the text, the illustrations, and the premise: a biography of a man we know so little about sounds like an oxymoron, a fool’s undertaking. How could Ackroyd possibly pull it off?

The unstoppable force vs. the immovable object. Perfect!

As the days dwindle between now and the 1st, I’m rounding out my syllabus. Thirty-seven plays in fifty-two weeks sounds doable in theory. I’m also including the sonnets and the poems.

Some of this may change on the fly. But pre-launch, my enthusiasm continues to grow.

The Joy of Lex

Posted in References on 2009/12/18 by mattermind

As noted below, when I stumble upon useful and relevant websites (I know it’s subjective, but somebody has to speak up), I plan on sharing them with you — and I hope you’ll do likewise.

For years I’ve been complaining about the pointless and unnecessary (and redundant and run-on and paranthetical) gap that exists between pop culture and the highbrow arts (so-called). If you want to enrage me, start hurling around the word “elitist” in an accusatory fashion, as if being great at anything is ipso facto bad. As if you have to wear a tie in your living room while listening to a concerto. Or drive a Lexus to like opera.

Being outstanding in your field is not the problem. All the snobbery and exclusivity based on extraneous factors are. It should really come down to whether or not you can play. And whether or not you enjoy watching/listening to/gazing at the works of those who can.

The game of life has many rules, but it shouldn’t bar non-members arbitrarily for being the wrong gender or not being born on the right side of the tracks. (I love the movie Finding Forrester for this reason. It shreds these typical stereotypes. And it features Sean Connery for crying out loud.)

So much grey-pouponery has accumulated around Shakespeare that we fail to remember that he was a populist as well as an entertainer of royalty. You get the sense that he loved a good fart joke. And sex. Certainly sexual banter (a trait that’s apparently contagious).

I love resources that help demystify the otherwise complex; I’ve often found that people who claim they aren’t interested in certain subjects really are, they just get flummoxed by cultural barriers like period language, historical context and complex symbolism compounded by snickering from the “in” crowd.

That’s why websites like http://www.shakespeareswords.com/ are invaluable (Yippee — the hyperlink works!) I take a special joy in pointing them out as quickly as I come across them. (Signified locally with a thump of the chest, a whack upside the head and a cry of, “Where has this been all my life?” — which I suppose I could YouTube, but then again, maybe not.)

Imagine being able to type in any thorny Shakespearean word online — there is a book form available on amazon.com as well — and not only having it defined for you but placed into context as well. David and Ben Crystal have done a spectacular job creating a googlish interface that simply begs to be played with.

Wordplay comprises so much of the joy of good poetry. And as we all intuitively grasp, Shakespeare was the master at it, combining poetry with drama and characterization in a synergy that has never been equaled in the entire history of language.

The text as Shakespeare wrote it will stand for all eternity. But resources like No Fear Shakespeare and Shakespeare’s Words will only help bridge the widening chasm between English as the Bard knew it and the lite/less filling version we consume today in emails, text messages and (ahem) blogs.

shakespeare.com

Posted in References on 2009/12/18 by mattermind

Yes, it exists. No, it does not make your petard stand on end. It’s rather anticlimactic, truth be told, but what is it with these pointed references?

Apparently the site has undergone some drama of its own. I’ll have to investigate. I certainly don’t mean to pass judgment. But shakespeare.com — really?

Naturally I’m on the prowl for all matters relating to Shakespeare on the internets. I plan to share with you any items of note, to spare you that darned google trap which can be like looking a word up in the dictionary or eating just one cookie fresh out of the oven.

Then again, if you know of a favorite site you’ve been keeping secret (or, you know, friends, boyfriends and significant others yawned at not so discreetly), feel free to share them here.

We’re a Shakespeare community, after all. This isn’t like class where you have to pretend. You’re not going to get a bad grade. I perfectly understand that reading or attending Shakespeare for a lot of people is like flossing between meals or eating your green beans. But some people actually like green beans. Sort of.

Maybe comparing Shakespeare to vegetables wasn’t such a great idea.