Archive for Homer

Oh, For a Muse of Fire!

Posted in Henry V with tags , , , on 2014/05/01 by mattermind

Henry V, Prologue

Shakespeare wastes no time starting Henry V, an ironic statement since we begin not with the main action, but instead with a prologue.

Why this isn’t a waste has more to do with The Great Conversation, the Agon of the Ages as Harold Bloom calls it, Shakespeare’s claim to fame as one of the immortals of literature that began with humanity’s first attempts at storytelling in the annals of historical memory.

His words are thunderous, ear-splitting, mind-shattering, echoing previous invocations of the muse by Homer, Virgil and Dante – the Cosmic All-Stars.  Mighty company to keep.

When entering such a hallowed hall, best to make one’s presence known straight off by clanging the gong of a familiar meme:

Oh, for a must of fire that would ascend

The brightest heaven of invention!

A kingdom for a stage, princes to act,

And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!

Then should the warlike Harry, like himself,

Assume the port of Mars, and at his heels,

Leashed in like hounds, should famine, sword and fire

Crouch for employment.

Shakespeare twice begs pardon, having tapped into mighty, mythological imagery by invoking the Greek muses, the God of War, and one of the greatest kings in English history.

To rise to the vaunted heights, an aspiring writer needs a magnificent theme.  Shakespeare recognizes he has one here and seizes his opportunity by the throat, announcing to the world from the outset that the playing field has been elevated, his aspirations engaged at the highest levels.

We are invited to become willing participants.  Indeed, he needs our assistance if his words can hope to paint such a sprawling canvas.  We are to lend our aid in imagining the  battlefields, the thunderous hooves of the prancing horses, marching soldiers, bloody battles.

The stage may be a pale imitation.  But in the right hands, and with our active engagement, Shakespeare dares to make a great historic moment come alive.

It’s breathtaking and unforgettable.  And yet the play hasn’t even formally begun.


I Kissed Thee Ere I Killed Thee

Posted in Othello with tags , , , , , on 2014/01/06 by mattermind

Othello, Act V

Othello: the Director’s Cut Quarto must be out there somewhere.

For surely the opening to Act V feels like a farce.  I accept that Roderigo fails at killing Cassio – we have no evidence that Roderigo is anything but a wealthy, foolish blunderer.  And I also grudgingly accept that Cassio might not mortally wound Roderigo, for Iago has chastised Cassio as being book-learned but untested in battle.  So I suppose that this, indeed, has all the makings of a farce.  But Iago, as we later see, has no qualms about killing whatsoever.  He dispatches Roderigo and his own wife with alacrity when the moments present themselves.  So the idea that he botches the job with Cassio makes no sense to me whatsoever, instead screaming that this is the only means by which Shakespeare could resolve the play with a happy ending.  Bladerunner, thy hath met thy match.

If Roderigo kills Cassio and Iago kills Cassio, does Iago get away with the perfect crime?  I wonder about this as I read Iago’s undoing in the final moments of the play, and ask myself where his true downfall begins.

It feels like the breakdown begins not with the farce, but with Iago’s murder of Roderigo.  Up till now, Iago has employed a dubious metaphysics which subscribes to the notion that if he doesn’t do the the actual deed, then he remains free of ultimate guilt for what transpires.  We saw this back when he tells Othello (a paraphrase): “You ordered this, I didn’t.”  It’s the same twisted metaphysics which manifests itself in the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment, where guards justify their brutality by saying that they were required to do so.

Until now, Iago has worked his diabolical methods by inducing others to commit atrocious acts to suit him.  To his own mind, however, his hands have remained clean.  But as he says at the end of Scene 1:

This is the night

That either makes me or fordoes me quite.

His lechery moves from the realm of the theoretical to the applied.  And as it does so, we see that he’s more than up to the task.  He has been a demon hiding in shadows, more than content to provoke others to commit the deeds that he feels no qualms to complete himself.

This becomes certain in two following actions: the cold-blooded killing of Roderigo and the murder of his wife, Emilia, in the presence of the others after she protests his sins like a Greek chorus.  At this point, Iago has taken on the mantle of the full-blown monster and Othello has become a piteous creature.  And now I do begin to feel for him, especially when he takes his own life as the only suitable justice befitting the crime he has committed with the words:

I kissed thee ere I killed thee.  No way but this,

Killing myself, to die upon a kiss.

I doubt there’s a more apt or poetic description for Othello’s state of mind at this moment.  He commits this act equal to Oedipus after learning that he has killed his father and slept with his mother, so it is little wonder that Othello invokes fate itself by saying, albeit in a different context:

Who can control his fate?

I have little doubt that Shakespeare wants us to know that he has Oedipus on his mind in the tragic figure of Othello.  Only Shakespeare has revised and updated the morality tale because it is not merely fate but the “semidevil” Iago who has instigated the crime with Othello’s own mistrust as the accomplice.  It’s as if Shakespeare were saying, Sophocles got it right, only I’ve got it better: man is to blame both in the motivation and its accomplishment.

Blame the devil all you want, but look no further than human weakness, greed and vanity for the real reasons why evil yet exists.

POSTSCRIPT: It bothered me why Desdemona persists in her sense of blame and guilt even as she’s being murdered by her husband.  When Emilia enters the bedchamber and asks:

O, who hath done this deed?

Desdemona responds:

Nobody – I myself.  Farewell.

Earlier, I stated that Shakespeare must have had Sophocles in mind while writing of Othello’s suicide.  But now I hear echoes of Homer in Desdmona’s reply.  For when Odyseus blinds the Cyclops, he has set the moment up in advance by claiming his name to be “Nobody.”  So when the other Cyclopeans ( plural?) come running to find out who blinded him, Polyphemus cries, “Nobody!  Nobody did this to me.”

My initial reaction, however, was to shout, oh, no, this woman has a serious guilt complex.  Then it dawned on me that she answers thus because, experiencing herself as wedded to Othello in the biblical sense, becoming one soul, one flesh, she in a true, wildly romantic sense does this to herself in the being of her husband, who has become inseparable from herself.

So here is Othello, questioning his wife’s fidelity to the point of murder, and here is Desdemona blaming herself because the beast who now attacks her has become one with her essence as husband.

That contrast is romantic, shocking – and as wildly divergent as any one single moment of time could sustain.  Quintessentially Shakespeare – and about as damned brilliant as any writing can possibly be.