Archive for St. John’s College

No Harm. What More?

Posted in Henry IV Part 1 with tags , , , , on 2014/04/12 by mattermind

“It’s just a flesh wound.”

Henry IV: Part I, Act IV

I’ve got to hand it to Hotspur.  In a play bursting at the seams with memorable characters, he singlehandedly steals the show.

It’s your typical case of Good Guy Wins Hearts and Minds, Bad Guy Gets the Girl.  He’s brash, he’s brazen, he’s cocksure and half-loaded.  He’s fired up for battle when he ought to be measured and tactical – and still, I just can’t help loving the guy.

Up to this point, everything has gone swimmingly for the insurgency.  They have might, they even have right, with a greater claim to the legitimate crown than the sitting king himself.  Armed with confidence and united in purpose, they have come out into the open and declared their challenge to the realm.

And then things fall apart.  It’s almost comical, just how fast the fist of fury dissolves into a sputtering wreck.  It all starts when Hotspur’s own father, the great Northumberland, sends word that he has taken ill and can’t make it to the hoedown.  His forces can no longer be counted upon to match the king’s rapidly gathering horde.

This is as big a psychological blow as a tactical one, since Northumberland’s poorly-timed medical defection, whether honest or no, will surely have a ripple effect on the tenuous rebels who will now be badly outnumbered and overmatched.  Hotspur himself has no way of knowing whether his father has seriously taken ill, or has merely soured on the venture.  But to his credit, he does not allow this bad news to dampen the mood. (“It’s just a flesh wound.”)

Then, more bad news: Glendower has been set back two weeks by a foreboding astrological forecast and refuses to join them in the ranks.  That makes two vital allies now missing in action.  Anybody with half a brain would slow the parade, if not cancel it altogether.  But not Hotspur.  He’s just raring to get this party started.

His position is not completely without merit. He believes the advantage lies in striking quickly and early, before the king’s men have fully assembled.  He also contends that his horses are better rested.  On a more personal note, having heard of Prince Hal’s gallantry (being compared to Mercury astride Pegasus – high praise, indeed), he becomes all-the-more fired up for a head-on confrontation.

Although Henry IV is no Darth Vader and the insurgents no Jedis, Hotspur’s brazen courage in the face of insurmountable odds reminds me a lot of this guy:

Which leads me to believe that our story will suffer greatly if/when he ultimately gets rubbed out [see: Empire Strikes Back].  So as much as I’ve been looking forward to a mano-y-mano brawl between Achilles and Hector (Hello, St. John’s.  Yes, I was paying attention.), I’m deeply troubled that without our little engine of bravery, the play as a whole will crash and burn.

There’s still Falstaff, of course.  But after his soliloquy in Act IV, I’m not sure I even like the guy anymore.  Flush with over 300 pounds from the crown’s kitty, a purse to raise 150 able troops on the king’s behalf, he has instead recruited fops and dandies with the knowledge that they would bribe their way out of the draft (Hmm…).  He has fielded a cast of downtrodden misfits and losers, an emaciated bunch of ragtag bums who will never survive the confrontations awaiting them.

In a speech that turns my stomach, Falstaff says about his men:

PRINCE HENRY: I have never seen such rascals.

FALSTAFF: Tut, tut, good enough to toss; food for powder, food for powder. They’ll fill a pit as well as better.  Tush, man, mortal men, mortal men.

This doesn’t sit well with me.  In fact, give me a dozen Hotspurs in his stead!  At least that man is fighting on principle, in defense of honor.  He’s brazen, he’s feisty, he’s lacking in a certain civil decorum.  But he knows what he stands up and is willing to die for, to the extent that he can say:

HOTSPUR: What may the King’s whole battle reach unto?

VERNON: To thirty thousand.

HOTSPUR: Forty let it be.

My father and Glendower being both away,

The powers of us may serve so great a day.

Come, let us take a muster speedily.

Doomsday is near.  Die all, die merrily.

Chilling stuff.  And the stuff of which unforgettable characters are made.

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Month One [A Summary]

Posted in Monthly Summary with tags , , , on 2014/02/01 by mattermind

Travel Journal

The majority of this blog is dedicated to the project of reading all of Shakespeare’s works within the span of a single year. Every so often (the end of the month seems a good time), it’s important to stand back and survey the terrain covered thus far, to attempt to make sense of what I have learned about Shakespeare and his plays, but also – and equally important – to assess the impact (if any)doing so has had upon my life.

Attempting to tackle the entirety of Shakespeare’s canon is a bit like globetrecking or climbing Mount Everest. One assumes that the view from the top will be life-changing, that the process of leaving home and setting off on the adventure will exert an influence akin to a junior year abroad, a gap year in Africa or sailing around the world.  But is that assumption accurate?

It could just be another dumb cliché in my own head, an easy metaphor ripe for debunking. So it’s important to take notes from the road, to stay honest, alert, and focused. I must continually ask questions honestly and confess whether or not all this effort is worth it. Is the experience fun? Enlightening? Does it change the way I write or view the world? Would I recommend it to others?

As I type this, a month has passed since the start of the new year and the launch of this endeavor. I have finished three plays at this point: Othello, Titus Andronicus and Richard III. In doing so, I have discovered my woeful lack of knowledge regarding English history and succession – a weakness I plan to remedy in February with one of The Great Courses (more on that later).

Looking back, I had a few options about how to map out the trip: a) strictly chronological regardless of genre b) thematic c) chronological within genre d) random, willy-nilly, whatever I felt like tackling. I decided to launch with Othello, the greatest play by reputation that I had never read before, and followed it with Titus, Shakespeare’s earliest tragedy, following up with Richard III, a tragic history I vaguely remembered from high school.

That sequencing was not the best. Yet the plays have much in common, strong villains being the primary. Othello set the bar tremendously high. Titus proved a gruesome yet strangely rewarding task – teaching me to observe that Shakespeare’s true intentions might not be plainly obvious. And Richard III walloped me with the realization that a grounding in basic English history would serve me well, especially with many more historical plays to follow.

What I like so far: Shakespeare’s language is becoming more familiar, less daunting while increasing its impressiveness (if that’s possible) with time and practice. I check the footnotes less often, intuit a meaning from context that often turns out to be accurate enough. I have learned that Shakespeare tailored his dialogue to individual characters, whereas before I naively assumed he wrote…I don’t know…”Shakespeare-ese.” His craft has become much more noticeable, how he condensed character and time to fit the 5-act structure. His flare for drama and conflict is pronounced. He was a consummate showman. His scenes never bore, advancing the plot, setting a mood or deepening a character. Every role leaps off the page or stage in 3-dimensions. Personalities such as Iago, Aaron, Desdemona, Titus and Richard III become iconic, metaphorical and utterly unforgettable. They each sound unique, act distinctly, represent a quadrant of soul set apart with their own tone and timbre such as members of my own family and friends. Shakespeare is a genius in manifest ways that I have only begun to explore.

What I don’t like: the scope and scale of the tragedy thus far. I am done with murder and treachery, ready to move on to the comedies, romances, the sonnets – anything with a little promise of happiness. I also am not thrilled with my own ignorance about history and context. As the saying goes, the more I learn, the less I know. But it’s also important to remind myself that this process has just started. I must allow myself room to breathe, to expand, to absorb, to develop. Associations will come. The context will gradually fill in. No matter how stupid I may feel at any one moment in time, the experience as a whole is deeply enriching my life.

Three plays in one month creates a nice pace, on schedule but overall slightly behind where I need to be to complete my year’s sojourn on time. I will have to make up ground and February should provide ample opportunity, since the comedies are shorter, lighter and breezier than the histories and tragedies. Love shall prove a suitable theme around Valentine’s day. I look forward to Love’s Labor’s Lost most of all, a play that I have never attempted before. Taming of the Shrew, on the other hand, is one of my all-time favorites.

I recently received a copy of The Sources of Shakespeare’s Plays by Kenneth Muir which will get added to the repertoire in February. It traces Shakespeare’s development as a writer, based upon how he adapted background materials. This should help quench my yearning desire to understand Shakespeare’s apprenticeship and mastery as a playwright.

I continue to make progress in Shakespeare: the Biography and Will in the World. I have also begun a Great Courses program by Peter Saccio called: “Shakespeare: Comedies, Histories and Tragedies” available HERE.

Yet the more resources I bring to bear, the more highly I value the St. John’s credo of reading each text for myself. It may sound overly romanticized or too Dead Poet Society for some people’s liking, but the real joy comes from the direct encounter with each play, the excitement generated by not knowing what’s about to happen. Like travel, nobody can do the hard work for you. Nor can they convey what the authentic, first-hand experience is like.

So get out there. Set forth. Pick up a play or attend one. Join Audible. Start your own journey somewhere and then follow through. This blog will serve as a companion. But Shakespeare will always be our guide.

March Madness

Posted in Julius Caesar with tags , , , , , on 2010/03/17 by mattermind

Julius Caesar, Act I: Scenes 1-3

I’m a little bummed I missed the ides of March by only two days.  How appropriate a starting place for the play that would have been!  I thought I was soooo clever reading 12th Night on the… wait for it… 12th night.  Then I whiff on the ides when reading Julius Caesar.  That’s like reading Ulysses a day after Bloomsday.

For those of you not familiar with the play (and I wasn’t until today, so don’t feel bad), the ides of March falls on the 15th.  I could tell you why this seeming bit of calendar trivia matters to history, but I’ll spare you the spoiler and say that Julius Caesar is warned by a soothsayer to beware of that day.

I’m in a bit of a quandary here on Julius, and not for the first time since starting this blog.  I suppose it will come up whenever I’m reading one of the legendary historical plays, especially one as pivotal as this.

I’ve already mentioned the St. John’s approach I’m taking to the readings: admit no secondary sources, just stick to the text in front of you, damn it!  (St. John’s avoids the expletive because decorum counts, but it is most definitely implied).  While that tact works admirably with a play like Coriolanus, in which Shakespeare takes great liberties with events handed down to him that we don’t much remember, it doesn’t turn out so well with a work like Julius Caesar for which a crib sheet is all but mandatory.

I suppose you can watch a movie about JFK without knowing much about the Kennedys or America in the 1960s and judge it on its own merits.  But even then, the filmmakers will likely include a gratuitous backstory or obvious exposition for the benefit of the educationally challenged who might not be aware of the underlying historical events.  Shakespeare, however, brooks no casual drop-in (or drop-out) viewers who wander in from a screening of Hot Tub Time Machine.

My favorite high school English teacher, Mr. DuPratt (capital P) would love the late-inning payoff of my catching Shakespeare’s en medias res opener only after repeated lectures on the merits of his own writing hero, Ambrose Bierce.  Somewhere he’s exalting that yes, I did indeed get the message and still remember some 25 years later.  But the point here, as far as Julius Caesar goes, is that Shakespeare grabs you by the lapels from the first line and tosses you immediately into the fray.  There is no crib sheet here.  No longwinded recap of the preceding business that got us up to this point.  He must have assumed that anybody going to a play called Julius Caesar would have had the necessary education to understand what’s going on.  That can’t be said today — not by a long shot.

And so… do I abandon the St. John’s method and consult Sir Isaac?  Do I google and wiki and Encarta to fill in my own chasms of ignorance?  Or do I just wing it and make my usual hash of greatness?

In this case, I opt for a little recon.  There’s simply waaaaaaay too much going on in the play to keep up with.  Wait — check that.  I actually could follow along quite well with only the Shakespeare.  I just couldn’t remember certain pesky details like, why are they so mad at Mr. Caesar again?

After all, the play doesn’t start like a thousand so-so movies that opt for the wicked crime-in-progress teaser at the start.  We don’t see Julius up to anything dastardly whatsoever except for a bit of stilted grandiosity.  The whole opening act revolves around how unhappy a certain faction is to the Caesar success story.  Scene 1 has the tribunes (again, the tribunes) putting a damper on the crowds who have taken a holiday to celebrate the great Caesar’s triumphs.

Without historical background, we have no idea what the big deal is about the celebration.  It’s neither here nor there except, I believe, to note the following: Caesar is one of the greatest military leaders in history. While not quite Plato’s philosopher-king, he comes about as close as any other man has ever been.  Some might argue the details, but suffice it to say that Caesar’s rise coincides with a period of horrible corruption and abuses in the Senate.  The underlying antagonism rises because Caesar has seized absolute authority (or is on the verge of doing so in the play) to institute a program of sweeping reforms.

The question arising in such situations is inevitably the same: will the avowed reformer disavow his vows once he attains the necessary power? Or will he overcome temptation to continue acting in the long-term benefit of all?

Sadly, the preponderance of evidence supports the idea that absolute power corrupts absolutely.  For every Mikhail Gorbachev who institutes Glasnost in the former Soviet Union, there are hundreds of petty tyrants and dictators who suspend freedoms and smash liberties in order to maintain a stranglehold on their powers.  If one were to argue solely on the historical record, Romans had every good reason to fear the power grab that Julius Caesar instituted.

But the factions rising against him aren’t just any ol’ renegade band of freedom fighters rallying to the cry of liberation.  This isn’t the Founding Fathers taking umbrage against King George, but a small band of political insiders who fear the reform policies, not the power.  The power is just the excuse they’re using to keep business as usual in place.

Brutus is often celebrated as a hero, but he’s not portrayed as one here.  In early scenes, he’s repeatedly being worked on by Cassius, a man whom Caesar himself does not trust.

JULIUS CAESAR: Yon Cassius has a lean and hungry look.  He thinks too much.  Such men are dangerous.

ANTONY: Fear him not, Caesar, he’s not dangerous.  He’s a noble Roman, and well given.

But that’s just Caesar’s problem.  He’s a big hit with the commoners.  It’s the Senators and quibbling elite within his inner circle that he has the most to fear.

It’s the reason Cassius is working so hard to gain Brutus for the rebellion.  Caesar trusts him.  And Brutus can get to him because of that trust.

Far from being a hero, Brutus is just the weasel that Caesar won’t suspect.  And to think: not a shred of evidence exists that Julius Caesar will use any of the power he’s attained for anything but the best interests of Rome.  Nobody, even Cassius, can argue such when making their pitch to overthrow him.

They can only “suspect” that Caesar will not live up to his intentions.  But the reality is, they want to keep the corrupt political trough in place as long as possible.  It’s the very reforms Caesar is proposing that they have to fear the most.

No parallels to American politics here!