Archive for Ulysses

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!

Advertisements

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.