Sunday, April 13, 2014

When Have You Felt the Most Free?

On the eve of Passover, I turn my thoughts to questions of freedom.

This year we will discuss this:  "What does it mean to be free?  Given the influence of family, culture, and society, are we free to make our own decisions?"

I'm beginning to see freedom as more of a spectrum.  It is not difficult to imagine slavery and oppression at one end of the spectrum.  But the other end?  What would it mean to be the most free?

We still live in bodies.  We are always a slave to oxygen and food and the many needs of the body.

Since we are social animals, we prefer to live in the company of other humans.  In order to keep them around, we must be pleasant and attentive - we lose our freedom to be unaccommodating.  (If you want to keep people around you without being pleasant and attentive, you either have to pay them, enslave them, or in some places, marry them.)

Asking "What is freedom?" or "What does it mean to be free?" leaves me swirling in definitions and interpretations from philosophy, psychology, and politics.  It seems more concrete to look at some moments when I have felt free:

Every day in July 2012, my back hurt.  I treated myself with hot showers and yoga, but the pain continued.   During a visit to Dale Alexander, a massage therapist, he readjusted something quite dramatically, and in an instant, the chronic pain was gone.  I felt free of pain.  I am always aware and appreciative of the times I am free of pain.

In 2003, I moved to Toronto.  I was busy with work and family, but I was a stranger in a strange land and felt out of place and unsettled; however, I had a bicycle.  When little kids get their first bikes, the entire neighbourhood and beyond opens up to them.  Perhaps they have their first taste of freedom.  Maybe I was re-experiencing my childhood joy, or maybe it was the connection to the wind, sun, and street that a bicycle provides.  I only know that whenever I was on my bike, I felt free and happy.

I bought Co-Dependent No More on a whim one day in the 1980s, but never read it.  However, during one period when I left a violent and substance-using spouse, I picked up the book again.  Every word I read spoke to me.  My situation was not unique.  The slavery I felt, the inability to break free, was not unique.  Ultimately, the book said, staying in the situation was not even helpful to the abusive spouse.  To be really helpful to him, he needed to face the consequences of his unpleasantness.  The heavy weight of my own beliefs lifted.  I felt light and free and able to make changes in my life.

Perhaps the Israelites of Exodus felt something like that after crossing the Red Sea.  Standing on the far shore, they looked back and saw the sea close behind them, crashing down on their oppressors.

There were many problems ahead, but maybe for that moment, they felt the most free.

When have you felt the most free?

Thursday, February 27, 2014

When Have You Felt Most Spiritual?

A couple of days ago, my buddy Steve said he might create a podcast about "religion as it relates to spirituality."

He was interested in hearing people's feelings about religion, as long as no one debates the existence of God.

I was rattled.  I began contemplating questions of spirituality looking for an entrance to the topic.  How do we talk about something so intangible?
Net Spirituality

What is spirituality?
What does it mean to be spiritual?
What is the spirit?

These questions led me nowhere -- at least nowhere sufficient.  Answering those questions would be like capturing spirituality in a butterfly net and pinning it into a display case.

As I explored the topic, I discovered that every attempt to explain or define spirituality involved words that were undefinable.  "Spiritual" led me to "peak experience" which led me to this definition on Wikipedia:

"Peak experience is a kind of transpersonal and ecstatic state, particularly one tinged with themes of euphoria, harmonization and interconnectedness. Participants characterize these experiences, and the revelations imparted therein, as possessing an ineffably mystical and spiritual (or overtly religious) quality or essence.

"Transpersonal is an experience in which the sense of identity or self extends beyond the individual or personal to encompass wider aspects of humankind, life, psyche, or cosmos."

We might get closer to understanding spirituality if a variety of people answered this question:  When did you feel most spiritual?

Was it spiritual when I imagined that I was deeply in love with another human?  At times, I was in an altered and ecstatic state.  At other times, in the presence of the lover, I felt peace, harmony, and rightness.  Once I looked in a lover's eyes and I saw my future unfold, but I would not describe those times as spiritual.  Those times were rooted in a physical present and full of contingency.  

Perhaps I could say I felt a spiritual awe when I was faced with raw nature:

  - an earthquake in Vancouver -- the explosive bang, the earth moving
  - a rainstorm in north Ontario when sheets of lightning filled the night sky for hours
  - the view from the top of Squamish Chief
  - the sunrise -- any sunrise

Those experiences bring me closer to a sense of spirituality.  I am conscious of this magnificence, but have no part in creating it.  It is bigger than me and goes on regardless of my presence. 

Just as the creations of nature fill me with a spiritual awe, so do some human creations -- what I have called transcendent art.  As I wrote in an earlier post, these creations took me beyond myself, outside of time.

I also feel spiritual when I participate in family rituals.  In my case, some of these are Jewish rituals.  Once a year, I sit with my family and talk about slavery and freedom.  It's a moving spiritual experience because, in doing so, we are participating in a ritual that has been passed on from generation to generation since Biblical times.  I imagine our way of telling stories and singing union songs is unique to our family, but the motive, the spirit, and many of the rituals are the same as they have always been.  I am present and bring my perspectives, but it is not about me and it is not about any other family member.  It is about human history.

My examples are not far off from the definitions of "peak experience" and "transpersonal."  For me, feeling spiritual involves connection with nature, creativity, and other people past and present.

However, I find that, more and more, I crave silence, emptiness, and stillness.  Only then can I hear my own wondering, creative spirit.  My spirit voice speaks in a whisper -- it is hard to hear her when I'm surrounded by noise.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Who's the Crazy One?

My friend XX is in therapy and feeling much better overall.  In one discussion with her therapist, she said,
When I tell you how crazy my family is, I feel bad.  I think, 'Who am I to be judging them?'  They are probably saying that I'm the crazy one.
Her question seems to be, "How do I know that my perception and judgements of sanity are reliable and fair?"  
Her therapist said,
The fact that you're wondering is a good sign that you are able to see a perspective other than your own.  You can see more than one possible interpretation.  People with personality disorders often think that there is nothing wrong with them.  Everyone else is crazy or stupid or evil.  Your ability to ask -- is it me or them --  suggests that it is not you.  
Meanwhile, the crazy person knows with absolute certainty that it is them.
DISCLAIMER:  My friend and I used the word "crazy" -- and in the context of our friendship and understanding of one another, we knew what we meant.  I would not casually use that word as it has far too many meanings.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Wither Shakespeare? Part X: What's the Difference Between Tragedy and Comedy in Shakespeare?

When I was studying literature in university, we told this joke:  What's the difference between tragedy and comedy in Shakespeare?

1.  Tragedies are longer;
2.  At the end of a tragedy, there are more bodies lying dead on the stage than standing; and
3.  Comedies end with a wedding.  Tragedies start with one.

The joke was obviously a warning, but I began to wonder:

Are these statements true?

Yes, tragedies are generally longer:
  1. Hamlet          The longest of all of Shakespeare's plays at 4024 lines.  TRAGEDY
  2. Coriolanus     The second longest at 3824 lines.  TRAGEDY
  3. Cymbeline     The third longest:  "Tragedy looms but never strikes."
  4. Richard III     The fourth longest  HISTORICAL TRAGEDY
  5. Antony and Cleopatra    The fifth longest  TRAGEDY
  6. Othello          The sixth longest  TRAGEDY
  7. King Lear      The seventh longest  TRAGEDY
  8. Romeo and Juliet  is still in the top 50% of longest.
  9. HoweverMacbeth, Julius Caesar, Timon of Athens, and Titus Andronicus are among the shortest.

Hamlet & Laertes
A tragedy ends with more bodies dead on stage than standing? 

This probably refers to Hamlet, more than any of the other plays.

Of the characters in Hamlet who had spoken lines, the only one left alive at the end is Horatio.  Fortinbras arrives to see the bodies of Hamlet, Claudius, Laertes, and Gertrude.  Every other important character in the play, including Polonius and Ophelia are already dead.

I'd rephrase difference #2 like this:  Tragedies end with much death and often have death and murder throughout.  I would add 

Cordelia dead

  • the more sympathy you have for a character, the more likely that character dies at the end
  • both the good guys and the bad guys die violent deaths (Macbeth, Othello, Richard III)
  • and if your name is the title of a Shakespearean tragedy, you will be dead by the end; if your name shares the title one or both of you will be dead.

A comedy ends with a wedding?

A lot of comedies start with longing.
Lucentio upon first seeing Bianca:

I burn, I pine, I perish, Tranio, 
If I achieve not this young modest girl
  - The Taming of the Shrew Act 1, Scene 1

Hermia, upon hearing that her father is forcing her to marry Demetrius:

I would my father look'd but with my eyes.
  - A Midsummer Night's Dream, Act 1, Scene 1
Orsino in love

The Duke, Orsino:

. . . when mine eyes did see Olivia first,
Methought she purged the air of pestilence!  
That instant was I turn'd into a hart;
And my desires, like fell and cruel hounds,
E'er since pursue me.
  - Twelfth Night, Act 1, Scene 1

A wedding at the end relieves this longing at least for some of the characters:

Come, Kate, we'll to bed 
We three are married, but you two are sped.  
  - Petruccio, The Taming of the Shrew Act 5, Scene 2  

And yes, many of the comedies, and even the problem plays and romances, end with a wedding or at least permission for the lovers to marry.  These include As You Like It, Twelfth Night, Love's Labours Lost, Much Ado About Nothing, The Taming of the Shrew, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Tempest and others. 

Some of these marriage scenes show an awareness of a dark side to marriage.  The Merchant of Venice suggests some tension between Lorenzo and Jessica
Kate chastizing the other two wives for their disrespect.

 and two of the three newly married couples at the end ofThe Taming of the Shrew already have issues.

 A tragedy starts with a wedding?

Hamlet begins with the wedding of Hamlet's mother, Gertrude, and his father's murderer, Uncle Claudius.

Othello begins with Brabantio, a Venetian senator, discovering that his daughter has eloped with Othello.  Iago puts it somewhat more graphically:

I am one, sir, that comes to tell you your daughter and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs.

Macbeth does not start with a wedding.  It starts with a gaggle of witches, news of a battle, then more witches.  However, not long into Act I, we meet Lady Macbeth and soon after we see Macbeth and his wife together.  We see a married couple in a conversation about their future.

By the end of Scene 2, Richard III, our title character, has won Lady Anne's agreement to marry him. She is mourning her husband and husband's father, both killed by Richard, who says triumphantly:

Was ever woman in this humour woo'd?
Was ever woman in this humour won?   

King Lear divides his kingdom between two of his daughters.  The third, Cordelia, who would not play the game of lying to their father, is quickly married off to the King of France.

By Scene 2 of Romeo and Juliet, we meet Paris who is seeking Capulet's permission to marry his daughter.  From then on, it's all talk of marriage.  By Act 2, Scene 4, Friar Lawrence leads Romeo and Juliet off to officially marry them. 

I conclude that the joke is mostly true.

When you're hooked on Shakespeare, you love both tragedy and comedy.  Both have wit and wisdom, joy and sadness, heroes, heroines, and villains, and characters with many dimensions to inform our lives.

What's the difference between tragedy and comedy in life?
Perhaps only time.

As author Charles Yu says, "Time is a machine that turns pain into experience," and if you wait long enough, tragedy into comedy.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

What Made You Know the Relationship Was Over?

Did you know suddenly?
Did you know gradually?
Was it something she said?  He said?
Was it something he did?  She did?
Were you surprised to get the text?

or read the billboard?

Knowing is one thing; making it end is another.  Making it really end might require packing up and moving or shipping someone else out of your life.  Both options can be cruel and time-consuming.

But this blog is not about leaving.  It's about the moment of knowing.  When I knew for sure that I had to leave a relationship, I felt like Brutus when he realized he would join the rebels and murder Julius Caesar:
Between the acting of a dreadful thing
And the first motion, all the interim is
Like a phantasma, or a hideous dream (Act 2, Scene 1)
I suspect that many relationships just peter out.  One or both of the parties involved become unmotivated to keep it going.  They know, on some level, that it's over, but have not admitted it to themselves or each other - and besides, they are too busy to act on their knowledge.

Falling out of love -- which is all dread and fear and disappointment is much more nuanced and complicated than falling in love -- which is all hope and hormones and happiness.

Falling out of love is the rude awakening, the realization that you made a mistake, the coming down from a trip.  The first response is to blame the other person.  Only much later do you admit your own responsibility in the situation.  You grow up.

I've written before my belief that you never hit bottom, but sometimes if you're lucky, the universe will come up and kick your ass out the door.  That is, you knew you had to leave, but for many reasons you did not make the move.  What was the moment of knowing?  How many of us actually knew the relationship was over before we got married and had kids?

Maybe you had a moment of knowing it was "over" or would be over in due course.  Here's a few of mine:

  1. He said, "We can have a child, if you really want to."
  2. He said, "I'm not sure we can be in a relationship if you only want to be a teacher and not an aerial photographer."  [Yes, he had his pilot's licence and insisted that I become an aerial photographer.]
  3. He (a different one) had a psychotic breakdown and was hospitalized.  When they let him out, he denied it had happened and didn't want to talk about it.
  4. He (a different one) threw a cast iron frying pan across the kitchen (that was before the wedding). [I know how to pick winners, eh?]
  5. He (a different one) said, "OK, let's go for therapy."  I said, "It's too late."
What about you?  Was there a moment when you knew the relationship was over?

Friday, December 27, 2013

What Do You Remember from Your Schooldays? Part II


A high school memory just came to me, inspired by this comment to my previous blog on memorization.
When I was in high school (not my favourite time), an English teacher said that everyone in my grade (nine, I think) had to write a one-page story in class right then. The best from the school would be submitted to a city-wide contest and blah blah blah.
Really? This sounded like bs to me - but I was often unhappy back then. I was not in the mood to generate a story out of nowhere.
I knew all the words to "For Emily Wherever I May Find Her" a beautiful song from Simon and Garfunkel's Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme album. so I just wrote them out as an essay, tweaking it here and there.  In longhand, it filled a page:
What a dream I had:  pressed in organdy, clothed in crinoline of smoky burgundy, softer than the rain.
I wandered empty streets, down past the shop displays.  I heard cathedral bells dripping down the alleyways, as I walked on.
And then you ran to me, your cheeks flushed with the night. We walked on frosted fields of juniper and lamplight. I held your hand.
When I awoke, I felt you warm and near. I kissed your honey hair with my grateful tears.
A week later, the teacher said I was chosen as a finalist from all the essays in the school. She wanted my permission to submit it.  Clearly whoever was screening the school's grade nine essays was a generation just enough older than me to not have been listening to Simon and Garfunkel.  I told her that I did not want my story submitted. "Thanks, Mrs. Laar," I said, "but it's personal."

I've been thinking recently of another high school memory.  The English curriculum in my grade 12 class included Greek tragedy.  We studied the elements necessary for a tragedy
  • hamartia - the fatal flaw of a tragic hero, usually hubris or pride
  • nemesis - the inevitable cosmic retribution 
  • fear and pity leading to catharsis
My essay for that unit, "Tragic Heroism in Two Films," asked whether the protagonists of Easy Rider and Midnight Cowboy were tragic heroes.  Both films were released in the spring of 1969.  I likely wrote the essay that fall.

In my essay, I discuss the tragedy of Ratso Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman).  Rizzo was unhealthy.  His dream was to get to Florida where he could be warm.  Seeing that Rizzo is getting sicker and sicker, Joe Buck (Jon Voigt), robs and murders an old man.  He buys Greyhound tickets to Florida, but Rizzo dies on the way down.  My essay says: 
"I left the film wondering if it would really have made a difference if Rizzo had made it to Florida.  Could he find happiness?  He could escape his situation, but not his wretchedness and self-pity."
Next to that paragraph, in red ink, Mrs. Wilson wrote, "No one ever makes it to Florida."

Every time I go to Florida, I think about Mrs. Wilson and wonder whether she was right.

Did anything that your high school teachers said still make you wonder?

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Whither Shakespeare? Part IX - Once More into the Breach

You may have noticed that Shakespeare has provided me with an entrance into personal and family history.  It seems I'm not the only one.  My Shakespeare blogs have also created windows into the family stories of my cousins.

My cousin Mark told me that when he was four, my uncle Abe (mentioned in Shakespeare Part IV of these blogs) made him memorize King Henry's speech to his troops (Henry V, III, i).  

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;
Or close the wall up with our English dead.
In peace there's nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility:

Me:  He made you memorize Henry's speech.  That sounds like child abuse.
Mark:  I liked the attention.  It was fun.

But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger;
Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood.

Mark:  I didn't learn it all at once.  It took a few months.  After I learned it, I used to torment my sister.  I'd run at her shouting, "Once more into the breach."

Then I'd chase her around yelling, "The game's afoot/Follow your spirit, and upon this charge/Cry 'God for Harry, England, and Saint George!'"

When he was about eight, Mark received a volume of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare from his father and proceeded to memorize Hamlet's "To be or not to be" speech from Act III, Scene 2.

To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? 

Me:  Did your father make you learn that too?
Mark:  No, it was my idea.
Me:  You were eight, you probably couldn't understand it.
Mark:  I had a copy of The Guinness Book of World Records.  I wanted to break the record for speedy recitation.
Me:  Speedy recitation of "To be or not to be" was a Guinness category?
Mark:  It still is.  The current record holder has it down to 24 seconds.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Whither Shakespeare? Part VIII - Shakespeare By Heart?

If you know these lines:   
     "To be or not to be, that is the question." 
      "All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players."
     "Beware the ides of March."

then you have memorized Shakespeare.  You probably know all kinds of Shakespeare:
"Is that a dagger I see before me?"

"Now is the winter of our discontent."

Aside from being handy in Jeopardy, there are many benefits to memorizing Shakespeare - or memorizing anything.  You probably know the words to dozens and dozens of songs.  I've been to concerts where the whole audience sings every word along with the performer.  In this day of individualized playlists, singing together gives you a profound shared experience of unity and, yes, love.

In my elementary school in Montreal, the piano was in an alcove above the auditorium.  In the December days before the Christmas break, the junior classes would squeeze into the space around the piano and sing carols over and over again until we knew every word.  Even a Jewish girl like me has found it useful to know the Christmas songbook by heart.

Whatever we memorize when we are young, we tend to remember:  piano sonatas, Christmas carols, and Shakespeare soliloquies.  In grade 7, I memorized Romeo's speech to Juliet on her balcony.  ("But soft, what light through yonder window breaks.")  Even today, I remember all 24 lines. 

When people feel doomed, I pull Macbeth's speech from the memory vault:
     "Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
     Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
     To the last syllable of recorded time;
     . . . It is a tale
     Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury

     Signifying nothing."

Petrucchio's speech from The Taming of the Shrew comes in handy when a couple is arguing:
     "And where two raging fires meet together,
     They do consume the thing that feeds their fury."

As a child growing up, I noticed that when my Uncle George (ז״ל) visited my family, he might suddenly begin a Hamlet soliloquy:
     "Oh what a rogue and peasant slave am I"  or
     "To be or not to be," or 
     "Oh that this too too solid flesh would melt,
      Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew!" 

and recite it through to the end.  During one visit, he confessed that he had memorized all seven of Hamlet's soliloquies.  I was a university student at the time, and this achievement impressed me.  "What made you do that," I asked.
"One summer," he said, "after the war - when I was in medical school, I was invited to a cottage north of Toronto to play chess."
"You memorized these walking by the lake?" I asked.
"No," said Uncle George.  "I memorized these while playing chess."
"While playing chess?"
"My host was a very, very slow player."

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Whither Shakespeare? Part VII - Were Young People Really So Rebellious in Shakespeare’s Time?

In Shakespeare, when parents choose their child’s marital partner, the child rebels – sometimes successfully, sometimes tragically.

In The Two Gentlemen of Verona, the powerful Duke of Milan wishes his daughter, Silvia, to marry the wealthy Thurio.  Silvia heads for the forest.

In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Hermia is commanded by her father and by Theseus, the Duke of Athens, to marry Demetrius.  She loves Lysander.  Hermia and Lysander flee to the forest.

In The Merry Wives of Windsor, Ann Page’s mother and father have each picked an inappropropriate husband for Ann.  Ann prefers her own choice, Fenton.  While everyone is gathered in forested Windsor Park to torment Falstaff, Fenton and Ann sneak away to secretly marry.

In The Merchant of Venice, Shylock’s daughter, Jessica, steals his money and runs away with the lover of her choice, leading Shylock to cry, "My daughter, my ducats."

In Cymbeline, Imogen, the daughter of the king, secretly marries her beloved, the unfortunately named, Posthumus.  The king wanted her to marry his stepson, Cloten.
In The Taming of the Shrew, Bianca and Lucentio marry secretly while her father arranges a marriage to another suitor. 
In All’s Well that Ends Well, the King of France commands his son Bertram to marry Helena.  He marries her, but vows never to consummate the marriage until she can “show me a child begotten of thy body that I am father to.”  He then joins the army and head to war.
And, as everyone knows, in Romeo and Juliet, while Juliet’s parents plan her marriage to Paris, Romeo and Juliet marry secretly in Friar Lawrence’s cell.  Everything goes badly for them, but generally in Shakespeare, the disobedient children end up with their own choice of spouse.

Is the rebellious child only a device for creating dramatic conflict or was Shakespeare reflecting a trend of his time?

Lawrence Stone in his book, The Family, Sex and Marriage In England 1500-1800 (1977) argues that, in Shakespeare’s day, when parents chose an unacceptable spouse, children would rebel.

Traditionally marriages were made by parents wanting to secure or expand their property and position in society.  Since these were not love matches, mistresses were common, mistresses were frequently included in wills, and the kings of England openly fathered numerous children outside of their official marriages.  However, the Puritan movement was gaining strength in England throughout the 16th century.  Puritans preached that marriage was a sacred bond and keeping a mistress was an offence against God.

Increasingly those of marriageable age thought, if I cannot have an extramarital lover, then I had better marry someone I love.  This challenge to parental authority was an unintended consequence of Puritanism -- and also a wonderful source of plot material for Shakespeare.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Whither Shakespeare? Part VI - To Get Hooked on Shakespeare, Where Should I Start?

After checking these blogs, a reader asked me “What play would you personally recommend to get someone hooked on Shakespeare?"

An argument broke out between my two houseguests.  One said Twelfth Night.  The other insisted The Tempest.

If you asked me how to get hooked on, say, Paul Auster novels, I would immediately say, "Start with The Brooklyn Follies or Oracle Night.  If you're intrigued, but not convinced, pick up Leviathan.  By then, if it's your thing, you're likely to be hooked and want to read them all.  Do not start with any book that begins with a man sitting alone in a room.

But Shakespeare?  How does one get hooked on Shakespeare?  It must depend on who you are.

If you’ve been ousted from your job and you’re seeking revenge, start with The Tempest.
If you’re contemplating retirement, start with The Tempest.
If you’re madly in love with someone who won’t see you or doesn’t know you exist or flees from you, start with Twelfth Night, A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream, or All’s Well That Ends Well.
If you hate hypocrisy, start with Measure for Measure.
If you feel controlled by your family’s beliefs and old grudges, start with Romeo and Juliet.
If you’re irrationally jealous, start with Much Ado About Nothing, Othello, or A Winter’s Tale.
Start with A Winter’s Tale anyway.
If you are worried about succession and your children’s loyalty, or ageing, or madness, start with King Lear.
If you’re wondering why victims of prejudice can’t just get over it, start with The Merchant of Venice.
If you want to see victims of prejudice further humiliated, start with The Merchant of Venice.
If your mother remarried and you have problems with your step-father, start with Hamlet.
If you want your boss’s job, start with Macbeth.
If you feel emotionally or spiritually shipwrecked, start with The Comedy of Errors, Twelfth Night, or The Tempest.
If your mother is overbearing, start with King John or Coriolanus.
If you’re not in direct line to inherit the family business, but would like to be, start with Richard III.
If you’re a gender bender and want to see a scene with what was in Shakespeare's day a man playing a woman disguised as a boy who agrees to pretend to be a girl to help another man practice wooing, start with As You Like It.
If you just like cross-dressing, start with As You Like It, Two Gentlemen of Verona, or Twelfth Night.
If you'd like to take a vow of chastity and immerse yourself in study, start with Love’s Labour’s Lost.

Most of all, one gets hooked on Shakespeare's language and wisdom.  Do yourself a favour.  Get hooked on Shakespeare.

What did I leave out?  What performance or teacher or experience got you hooked on Shakespeare?

Friday, December 13, 2013

Wither Shakespeare? Part V - What Is Friendship in Julius Caesar?

A grade 12 classroom in the east end of Hamilton Ontario.

I was a substitute English teacher for the day.  I expected the usual rioting, but for some reason these older high school students seemed ready to continue with the lesson their regular teacher had prepared.

They were studying Julius Caesar and the instructions were to continue reading aloud.

Act V, Scene iii:  The war between Caesarists and conspirators has gone back and forth.  Wrongly believing his army was taken, Cassius has his servant stab him.  Discovering Cassius's body, his lieutenant, Titinius, "points the sword at his heart and falls forward upon it."

Act V, Scene v:  But now it appears that the rebel forces have been defeated by Antony's army and those loyal to Caesar.  Brutus does not want to be taken alive.  We find Brutus at his camp surrounded by his most loyal friends. 

Brutus sits down with his friend Clitus and whispers in his ear.  Clitus responds:

julius-caesar-william-shakespeare-hardcover-cover-artCLITUS:  What, I, my lord? No, not for all the world.

BRUTUS:  Peace then! no words.

CLITUS:  I'll rather kill myself.

Brutus then calls to his friend Dardanius.

BRUTUS:  Hark thee, Dardanius.


DARDANIUS:  Shall I do such a deed?

CLITUS:  O Dardanius!


CLITUS:  What ill request did Brutus make to thee?

DARDANIUS:  To kill him, Clitus. Look, he meditates.

Brutus then says openly to his dear friend Volumnius

BRUTUS:  Come hither, good Volumnius; list a word.

VOLUMNIUS:  What says my lord?

BRUTUS:  Why, this, Volumnius:
The ghost of Caesar hath appear'd to me
Two several times by night; at Sardis once,
And, this last night, here in Philippi fields:
I know my hour is come.

VOLUMNIUS:  Not so, my lord.

BRUTUS:  Nay, I am sure it is, Volumnius.
Thou seest the world, Volumnius, how it goes;
Our enemies have beat us to the pit:

It is more worthy to leap in ourselves,
Than tarry till they push us. Good Volumnius,
Thou know'st that we two went to school together:
Even for that our love of old, I prithee,
Hold thou my sword-hilts, whilst I run on it.

VOLUMNIUS:  That's not an office for a friend, my lord.

I interrupted the reader and said, "Brutus asks Clitus, Dardanius, and Volumnius to simply hold his sword while he ran against it, but they all refuse.  What's going on here?"

"Brutus wants to die," one student replied, "and his friends won't kill him."

"Cassius's servant, Pindarus, was willing to kill him, but Brutus's friends won't?"

"They're his friends.  You don't kill your friends."

"But Caesar was Brutus's best friend.  Caesar didn't want to die, and his best friend killed him.  Brutus wants to die, but his friends won't kill him.  What's Shakespeare saying about friendship?"

The students looked up from their books.

I said, "Consider these lines from Oscar Wilde's poem 'The Ballad of Reading Gaol.'"  I recited from memory:

Yet each man kills the thing he loves
  By each let this be heard,
Some do it with a bitter look,
  Some with a flattering word,
The coward does it with a kiss,
  The brave man with a sword!
Some kill their love when they are young,
  And some when they are old;
Some strangle with the hands of Lust,
  Some with the hands of Gold:
The kindest use a knife, because
  The dead so soon grow cold.
Some love too little, some too long,
  Some sell, and others buy;
Some do the deed with many tears,
  And some without a sigh:
For each man kills the thing he loves,
  Yet each man does not die.
At the word "die," the bell rang.  The class was still, silent, thinking. Then like a horde of Roman soldiers entering the battlefield, they grabbed their notebooks and hustled to their next class.

At lunch I ran into one of the students outside the library.  "Hi Miss.  I found it!" she said, eyes dancing.  She was carrying a volume of Oscar Wilde's poetry.