Archive for Stephen King

Bid Time Return

Posted in Richard II with tags , , , , on 2014/03/27 by mattermind

Richard II, Act III

Many noteworthy novels, plays and movies have taken their titles from lines of Shakespeare – too many to list here (for a complete rundown, see WIKI.) When I stumbled upon the following quote from Richard II, “O call back yesterday, bid time return,” I knew at last where Richard Matheson drew his own title for what became the memorable film, Somewhere In Time.

The original novel, if you can find it, is called, of course, “Bid Time Return.” I tracked it down a long time ago and devoured it, in part because of its fantastic premise, but also because Matheson was one of the most influential novelists of the 20th century (if you doubt me, ask Stephen King).

For those of you unfamiliar with the novel or the movie, this might be a good place to start:

I most remember the novel for a detail that doesn’t end up in the movie. When Richard retreats to an historic hotel to contemplate man’s mortality and the meaning of life, he takes with him the complete symphonies of Gustav Mahler. I had only vaguely known about Mahler before then, but afterwards he became my favorite composer. More than that, one of the most important artistic figures in my life.

I owe that connection to Mr. Matheson, but really so much more. I got to meet him and thank him personally at a screenwriting conference in which he confessed that the inspiration for the story was his beloved wife. Known mostly for his writing on The Twilight Zone and groundbreaking novels of suspense and psychological horror (again, see: King, Stephen) – he winked at the audience and said that every so many years he wrote a love story just for her.

You might know one of these stories since it too is based on a line of Shakespeare: What Dreams May Come.

This is perhaps an overly long introduction to Act III of Richard II. But it’s far too short a reminder of how remarkable a man and writer Richard Matheson was.  He is and will be deeply missed.

As for Richard II, he is neither highly regarded nor much sought after in his absence, save for a small band of loyal followers who are either abdicating to Bolingbroke or losing their heads. The question lingers whether Bolingbroke has a right to do what he’s doing – at least from a legal standpoint. Richard is still hung up about his moral authority as God’s chosen vassal.  He has uttered a few odd curses upon Bolingbroke that to my ears harken back to similar foreboding in Richard III (a play that was written prior to Richard II, though the latter chronologically precedes it).

Richard, however, has an interesting reaction as he slowly wraps his mind around the concept that he is being stripped of his authority. It comes as a bracing shock to him that he might, in fact, be a mere mortal after all, just like everyone else.  He seems to savor the bittersweet schadenfreude of his pending demotion, saying with self-deprecating sarcasm:

KING: Cover your heads, and mock not flesh and blood

With solemn reverence. Throw away respect,

Tradition, form, and ceremonious duty;

For you have but mistook me all this while.

I live with bread like you, feel want, taste grief,

Need friends. Subjected thus,

How can you say to me I am a king?

The revelation in humility would be refreshing if genuine.  But it sounds more like pouting as Richard bemoans his misfortune at the hands of Bolingbroke – neglecting, mind, all he personally did to rile his subjects to turn against him.

Like it or not, however, the question remains, whether what Bolingbroke is just.  Will his actions right the foundering ship of England – or invite ruin upon the land by his quest to unseat a standing king?

We are still a ways from the end…and a definitive resolution.

With a Passion Would I Shake the World

Posted in King John with tags , on 2014/03/13 by mattermind

King John, Act III

Consider me bowled over.

This play has me hooked…and it was the last thing I expected.  Don’t know why.  Probably because – as I previously mentioned – you don’t see it performed often or even mentioned with Shakespeare’s great works.  It just sorta gets lumped in.  “Oh, and then the King John thing.  What’s that about?”

For my money, it’s the best read I’ve had so far.  Maybe because it hit me out of left field.  Maybe because it reads like a tense action flick; Die Hard comes to mind.  Shakespeare relentlessly puts the main characters in the most excruciating circumstances.  They must choose between a rock and a hard place.

In Act III, King John and King Philip have come to a precarious peace by agreeing to a marriage that will tidy up the land dispute that brought them to arms.  But this agreement pisses off Constance, who was counting on Phillip rallying to the cause of her son, Arthur.  She rails at Philip for betraying her, even if the result is peace.  The peace displeases, for it upsets Arthur’s line to the throne.

Enter the pope, err, rather the pope’s spokesman to force a decision upon John that the king detests: accept the pope’s choice for the Archbishop of Canterbury or be excommunicated.

Being excommunicated by the pope is no joke, especially at that time.  But John is steadfast, headstrong, willful, you might say stupid in standing his ground over what could be argued a relatively trivial matter.  Not that the Archbishop of Canterbury was trivial – he was the most important church figure in England.  But rather the risk John took in crossing the leader of the singular head of the Western faith.  Remember, the Protestant Reformation did not exist yet.  Catholicism, for all intents and purposes, was it.

We in the modern age cannot fathom how much power this one man held throughout Europe.  There is simply no like figure in our worldviews.  But for John to dare what it would take Henry VIII to fully accomplish – and then, only with a great deal of bloodshed – ought to put into some kind of perspective the tensions that this play creates.

And yes, this much is certainly historically accurate.  John disastrously played his hand against three powerful forces: 1) the pope 2) King Philip and 3) his own barons, who became outraged at his singular incompetence.

When Pope Innocent excommunicated John, John retaliated by pillaging Catholic holdings in England for a lot of loot.  But it backfired when the pope withheld any forms of worship in England.  This meant no church weddings, funerals or services of any kind unless clandestine. For the people of the Middle Ages, this resounded like a shockwave.

And yes, John disappeared Arthur in a manner that history has not been able to decipher.  But it too caused the English to turn to their king with a growing disdain and abhorrence.

Add to these woes the anger generated from endless rounds of taxation needed to fund armies to attempt to reclaim the lost French holdings and you begin to understand why John’s legacy has not been favorable in the historical memory of England.

The fascination for me is watching Shakespeare turn these historical facts into riveting drama.  Sure, he’s taken a few liberties with characters and condensed time and space where he saw fit.  But the end result certainly approaches the fine mess that John created for himself and does so by holding us on the edge of our seat.

It sounds like exaggeration, but I have read the first three acts of this play as I would a novel by Dan Brown or Stephen King.  I realize that may not be an endorsement to some.  But take from that the metaphor if not the names.  Substitute your own favorite authors and films.

Did I mention I LOVE this play?  No, it’s not Hamlet.  It’s all outward action and suspense.  A great popcorn read, if you will.

But is there anything wrong with that?

What Are You Thinking?

Posted in Othello with tags , , on 2014/01/10 by mattermind

Now that I’ve finished reading Othello on my own, I’m open to opinions and suggestions from secondary sources (and your commentary) to expand and/or contradict what I’ve written here.  I understand it’s a bit foolish to publicly flail your way through the greatest works in Western literature…but then, hey, the whole idea is that we all have to do this for ourselves at some point.  We can’t let teams of experts tell us what to think and believe about everything.

That said, I dove headfirst into a book by Mr. Colin McGinn called “Shakespeare’s Philosophy: Discovering the Meaning Behind the Plays.”  if curious, you can read more about that HERE.

What had me most curious was how a professor of philosophy would approach the text, rather than the usual literary historian or critic.  To say that I was thunderstruck would be an understatement.  My conceptual hinges were blown away by his suggestion that the play centers itself upon the conundrum of epistemology – the study of how we know what we know (and if it can be known at all).

I’d certainly seen elements of this for myself.  But it was the way Mr. McGinn honed in on this as his cornerstone proposition…that Shakespeare was acutely aware of the impassible bridge separating interior states of consciousness from one another.  Or, to put it another way, I may know what I’m thinking, but how can I ever be sure about you?

Once grasped, the implications take on a life of their own.  I found my face contorted in that Macaulay Culkin OMG Home Alone expression while scrawling yes Yes YES in the margins as if I were Molly Bloom.

This central thesis, and the companion notion that Shakespeare constructed the whole play around its core idea, makes perfect sense from the text as far as I’m concerned.  No, it can never (nor should it)  explain every nuance or flatten out its complexity or hidden layers of meaning.  But it does provide a firm grasp on what’s happening both at the meta-level as well as buried deep within the subterranean subtext of the individual characters.

It’s a point that recurs again and again and again in Othello: what do people know, how do they know it, and how can they be manipulated by somebody who is willing to not play by the rules?

We all operate to some extent in a state of darkness.  I don’t know what you’re thinking and you can’t be certain of me, even if I swear I’m telling the truth.  This is Desdemona’s problem as she attempts to convince Othello that she has remained faithful.  This is Othello’s problem as he weighs his intuitive trust in his wife with the psuedo-evidence that Iago has fabricated.  We can go down the list of characters – and even background events – and describe how appearances not matching up to reality underlies the troubles that climax in tragedy.  But that’s better left in the hands of Mr. McGinn.

For my own evidence, I turn to a striking dialogue between Othello and Iago, a pivotal moment that sways Othello from predominant faith in Desdemona to the tipping point of jealous madness.  In the span of hardly a page, Shakespeare keeps driving home the single word think.

OTHELLO: What dost thou think?

IAGO: Think, my lord?

OTHELLO: “Think, my lord?” Alas thou echo’st me

As if there were some monster in thy thought 

Too hideous to be shown…

IAGO: My lord, you know I love you.

OTHELLO: I think thou dost…

IAGO: For Michael Cassio

I dare be sworn, I think, that he is honest.

OTHELLO: I think so too.

IAGO: People should be what they seem,

Or those that be not, would they might seem none!

OTHELLO: Certain, men should be what they seem.

IAGO: Why then, I say Cassio is an honest man.

And therein lies the problem: Iago is lying!!!  Othello “thinks” he’s telling the truth.

Desdemona tells the truth…and Othello “thinks” that she is lying.

Here is the real tragedy in Othello.  And it’s woven into human nature and the human predicament itself.

This isn’t Othello’s story – or Iago’s or Desdemona’s for that matter.  It’s yours and mine and ours.  We deal with it every moment of every single day, even if our misunderstandings don’t necessarily lead to murder.

And yet it happens.

How many times do we turn on the television only to hear that same frightening news report from the shocked neighbors who swear that they had no idea a serial killer lived on the same street/ next door/around the corner?

Who is telling the truth and who is lying?  Whom do you trust?  What proof do you have?  What proof do you want or need?

Do you really know your husband or wife?  Your children?  Your best friend?  What secrets are they keeping?  What secrets do you keep from them?

That’s epistemology in a nutshell, folks.  And it’s why Othello is truly a creepshow – as well as a work of staggering genius –  that a horror master such as Stephen King might wish he’d dreamed up.