Archive for Don Quixote

I Know Thee Not, Old Man

Posted in Henry IV Part 2 with tags , , on 2014/04/29 by mattermind

ImageImage: Don Quixote by Pablo Picasso / Source: Wikipedia

It’s easy to forget that Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616) lived during almost precisely the same span of years as William Shakespeare (1564-1616).  Two towering luminaries expanded and redefined their national (as well as international) literatures in the identical epoch, creating some of the world’s most memorable characters.

This occurred to me as I was trying to make more sense of Falstaff and the comedic elements of the play.  Then it dawned on me how Shakespeare dwells upon Falstaff’s dubious status as a knight.  Suddenly, when compared to that even more famous knight errant, Don Quixote, the roistering fat man fit the bill.

Both Shakespeare and Cervantes, it seems, were intent on skewering the fading chivalric ethos with the overwhelming presence of knightly fools.  Not the same fools, to be sure.  Don Quixote is lovably deluded, whereas Falstaff is laughably conniving.  Both misread their current predicaments in an age when over-the-top romanticism is rapidly wearing thin.

The harshest blow occurs in Act V during a famous scene in which Prince Hal, newly coronated as Henry V, disowns his former friend in front of everyone.  Not only that, but he banishes Falstaff and prevents him from ever coming within ten miles of the royal presence at the cost of his life.

It’s enough to make one wonder how genuinely Hal kept the friendship, ever keeping in mind his disagreement with his father, Henry IV and the long-standing plot to transform himself into a king and shock the world.

But one must also remember that Hal’s role has changed now that his dad is dead and the weight of the realm has fallen upon his shoulders.  He must take a stand – make a show – in as theatrical (no pun intended) a fashion as possible to convince his subjects that the Harry of old will not continue his debauchery upon the throne.

It has led many to interpolate a bittersweet pride in Falstaff (portrayed particularly by Orson Welles in Chimes at Midnight), recognizing even in his own rejection how far his protégé has ascended.  Our pain as audience members grows as we comprehend Falstaff’s emotional denial of the absoluteness of this rejection, attempting to convince himself that Hal doesn’t mean what he says but is merely putting on a necessary show.

By causing us to feel great sympathy for Falstaff at the last, Shakespeare has managed to bring our ideas of the man full circle, confounding easy description.  Falstaff is (pardon another pun) a “round” character, a full being who beggars simple labeling as either a good or bad man.

He may have a good soul, as Orson Welles argues, but he sometimes has a funny way of showing it.  By trying to make everything funny, he has a tendency to try and hide loose morals and cheap values, a tawdry sort of existence.  He may be lovable, and forgivable…but he sure can grow tiresome.

Like the newly christened King Henry, we all reach an age when it’s time to move onto more serious pursuits.  Such as Henry V, in this case.

The age of knights and chivalry achieved its own spectacular highs and abominable lows.  But every era too reaches a point when the welcome is worn out and a new era yearns to be born.


He Hath Some Meaning in His Mad Attire

Posted in The Taming of the Shrew with tags , , , , , on 2014/02/24 by mattermind

The Taming of the Shrew, Act III

I am doing my best to read Taming with objectivity – whatever that means.  But it seems to me that the interpretive gist of the play falls decisively in Act III. Specifically, in these fateful lines from Petruchio:

PETRUCHIO: I will be master of what is mine own.

She is my goods, my chattels; she is my house,

My household stuff, my field, my barn,

My horse, my ox, my ass, my anything;

And here she stands, touch her, whoever dare.

Taken at face value, this speech condemns Petruchio – at least in modern terms, although not necessarily Shakespeare – as a misogynist.  But then when can we ever take Shakespeare at face value?

The BBC must have had a similar idea by casting John Cleese as Petruchio.  It’s utterly impossible for me not to hear these lines without a Monty Python spin to them, which is not to fault Mr. Cleese for his Shakespeare but rather to reinforce that casting is an interpretive act.

John Cleese as Petruchio

John Cleese as Petruchio

Indeed, the whole manner of Petruchio’s arrival at the wedding begs for explanation.  For he hasn’t merely shown up in the equivalent of a tux and tails (or whatever the bride and guests were expecting), but in the most outrageous garb imaginable.

Had Petruchio been satisfied merely to strike a financial coop with Baptista, Katherine’s rich father, all he really needed to do was go through the motions, say “I do,” claim his prize and ride off to treat Katherine from then on however he liked.  According to Medieval law and accepted convention, he would have had every right to do so.

We have seen in the negotiation phases of each courtship that in every practical sense they are financial transactions more than matters of the heart.  While Baptista will no doubt be relieved to get cantankerous Katherine off his hands by whatever taker, he first secures Petruchio’s standing and then insists, not because he has to, that Petruchio ought first win her heart.

Oddly enough, he does not insist upon the same conditions for his younger daughter, Bianca.  In the rivalry between Gremio and Tranio (disguised as Vicentio), Baptista declares flat out that he with the richest bid will win the prize.  Make an offer – get the girl.  It’s just that simple.

Or is it?  Shakespeare shreds the accepted practices of his day by exposing them to ridicule in the form of his absurd comic treatment.  Courtship has become such a ritualized dance by his day that it offers him ample opportunity to flout its ritualized norms.

That is, in fact, what I believe Petruchio is up to here.  His outlandish getup reminds me of a scene from Don Quixote.  Imagine the mindset it requires to enter a foreign city to confront your wife’s family and fellow citizens on your wedding day geared up like that.  It takes um, err, guts.  To say the least.

Petruchio makes a bold statement with his actions.  I believe they are meant specifically for Kate, though she does not yet know Petruchio well enough to decipher his behavior.  Here Shakespeare plays with the (sorry, guys) internality and externality of perception – subjectivity and objectivity – to show her that he doesn’t care about how outlandish their behavior appears.  Let people think what they want.  He won’t be trapped by the same suffocating cliches in which everybody else remains content to participate.

He’s reaching out to Kate and saying, “I’ll risk seeming a fool to others if you will.  Step out onto the ledge and we’ll leap out together.  But first, you must learn to read the same language.”  It is precisely these lessons in subjectivity upon which Petruchio now engages.

A long time ago, I learned that Albert Camus described love as “two against the void.”  While I haven’t been able to properly attribute this quote, it has nevertheless stayed with me as the most romantic of all definitions of love.

When Don Quixote tilts at windmills, he is mad.  But if only one other person sees the giants too, well…suddenly it becomes much different.  The more quirky our uniqueness, the harder the quest to find our perfect match, our soulmate, the one other person who looks upon the world and shares our zany visions of white rabbits, a baseball field carved into an Iowa cornfield, every leg of an upcoming U2 tour – or whatever.

Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter what you see but that you see it together.  And I think that’s what Petruchio is beginning to do here, in this act.  He wants Katherine to abandon her reliance upon the convention that has failed her and to adopt a new language that they will develop together.  Let the world believe what it wants to believe.  Behind closed doors, they will reinvent the game from scratch.

So, okay, I am back to my old romantic interpretation.  But two acts still remain.

A New Shakespeare Play?

Posted in Double Falsehood, The Plays with tags , , on 2010/03/15 by mattermind

Looks like I’m going to have to revise my blog header… again. According to the BBC, Arden is including a new play, “Double Falsehood” (ironic name!) in the collected works.

The play was first presented as a Shakespeare adaptation in the 17th Century but was later dismissed. Now, it seems, scholars have concluded more or less that a good portion of the work is in the Master’s hand — and that he likely collaborated on the rest with John Fletcher (of Two Noble Kinsmen fame, among others).

I’m most curious that the play may be a revision of an earlier, lost work called Cardenio. That, and it’s subject matter, which involves Cervantes, the writer of Don Quixote.

Double Falsehood was supposedly written in 1612, shortly after Don Quixote came out. We seldom think of it, but two of the greatest writers in the world were alive at the same time:

Cervantes: 1547-1616
Shakespeare: 1564-1616

That they knew of and were influenced by each other is thrilling, to say the least!


Make War Upon This Bloody Tyrant Time

Posted in The Sonnets with tags , , , , , on 2010/02/18 by mattermind

The Sonnets: 1-20

The Sonnets do not begin as I thought they would, which is hardly a surprise considering how well my assumptions have paid off on plays like Pericles or Timon of Athens.

Still, when I think “Shakespeare” and “sonnet,” the gushing of #18 leaps to mind:

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed,
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature’s changing course untrimmed:
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,
Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st,
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

What I didn’t know until now is that this most famous of sonnets is one of the many — in fact, the majority — written to the “Fair Youth,” i.e. a guy.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It’s just the use of the words “lovely” and “darling” — I suppose they play into my heterosexual presuppositions, which is why the Sonnets as a whole can be so confounding.

I keep expecting medieval madrigals written by stalwart knights to fair and virtuous maidens espousing eternal love despite hopeless circumstances, unrequited love lofted to its highest expression.

Instead I get what sounds like exasperated patronizing to hurry the hell up and start cranking out grandkids (Sonnets 1-17) and wicked gender confusion in Sonnet #20.

It all makes me believe that there’s something else going on here. No wonder conspiracy theories spring up around these things! They confound easy interpretation, defying coherent surface patterns while all but begging for literary detective work to reveal their underlying code.

There are, however, two recurring metaphors that knit the early sonnets together: the brutal (and imminent) passage of time and the in/ability of art (the sonnets themselves, in this case) to overcome it.

One moment, the poet is incapable of rendering the beauty of the gorgeous youth and only children might preserve his immortality. But as the sonnets roll by, the writer’s confidence grows, till by Sonnet #18 he’s throwing down the gauntlet and daring, “So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.”

He’d been stuck till then in that one-note groove, a carpe diem of sorts to the Fair Youth to make copies of himself while he is still young and capable.

The tone thus far between men has hardly been sexual. In fact, the writer continuously exhorts the boy to husband a maiden who would gladly have him till her garden (Shakespeare’s words, not mine). The advice is bluntly stated: namely, to breed, which is odd, really, coming from an older male admirer who is supposedly in love with him.

If it’s truly homosexual love being expressed between the writer and the Fair Youth, why is he disappointed that the object of his adoration has, you know, a penis? Wouldn’t most gay lovers delight in that very — um, this is getting weird — appendage?

And for a woman wert thou first created,

Till nature as she wrought thee fell a-doting,

And by addition me of thee defeated

By adding one thing to my purpose nothing.

But since she pricked thee out for women’s pleasure,

Mine by thy love, and thy love’s use their treasure. (#20)

At this early stage, I am most interested in a notion I read on Wiki regarding the possibility that Shakespeare is outwitting everyone by subverting the sonnet form, which had only recently seen its heyday in the 1590s. (The Sonnets were published in 1609.)

It calls to mind the single greatest example of this sort of mental game that I know: Bach’s B Minor Mass.

Bach was about as Protestant as you could get, yet he sought out the most difficult challenge of the age: writing liturgical music in its highest form, which meant the Catholic mass. So he overrode the barrier that would limit any lesser mortal and proceeded to set down the most epic mass in the history of music.

While that’s a later example than Shakespeare, it too is not unique. More recently, James Joyce usurped the entire Western canon in writing Ulyses, smelting all and sundry literary types to fit the pattern of his own unique genius.

So why wouldn’t Shakespeare have a little fun with the Sonnets? How could the greatest writer in the history of the world simply take a given form and be content to churn out the standard and expected (as I had assumed), only cranked up to eleven?

Here’s the idea, as set down in Wiki:

One interpretation is that Shakespeare’s Sonnets are in part a pastiche or parody of the three centuries-long tradition of Petrarchan love sonnets; in them, Shakespeare consciously inverts conventional gender roles as delineated in Petrarchan sonnets to create a more complex and potentially troubling depiction of human love. Shakespeare also violated many sonnet rules which had been strictly obeyed by his fellow poets: he speaks on human evils that do not have to do with love (66), he comments on political events (124), he makes fun of love (128), he parodies beauty (130), he plays with gender roles (20), he speaks openly about sex (129) and even introduces witty pornography. (151).

This notion appeals to my intuitive sense for the nature of genius and how it delights in putting a monkeywrench to standard types.

If Shakespeare was not content with the Aristotelian unities of space, time and place… if he invented a cast of characters with all the depth and profundity of the modern human psyche… if he had a grasp of man’s glories and foibles, his lofty rational inquiry and his craven, gutteral desires… why would he then limit his aspirations here, shortly after the craze for sonnets had come and gone? Might it not be similar to Cervantes skewering the knights tales with Don Quixote?

Then again, I’m only twenty sonnets into the thing.