January 30, 2010

Weekend poetry selection: The riddle of the world

Know then thyself, presume not God to scan
The proper study of Mankind is Man.
Placed on this isthmus of a middle state,
A Being darkly wise, and rudely great:
With too much knowledge for the Sceptic side,
With too much weakness for the Stoic's pride,
He hangs between; in doubt to act, or rest;
In doubt to deem himself a God, or Beast;
In doubt his mind and body to prefer;
Born but to die, and reas'ning but to err;
Whether he thinks to little, or too much;
Chaos of Thought and Passion, all confus'd;
Still by himself, abus'd or disabus'd;
Created half to rise and half to fall;
Great Lord of all things, yet a prey to all,
Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurl'd;
The glory, jest and riddle of the world.--Alexander Pope, 1688-1744

January 29, 2010

Hamlet, revenge!

Several years ago, my judo teacher died. He was a great guy who volunteered his talents for years after hectic days as a public school administrator.

Although his mobility was impaired toward the end by old injuries, his chokes were sublime. When he sunk one on you, it didn't hurt at all. It felt like you were taking a nice long nap.

I attended his funeral with several of his other students. The thought occurred to us at the time that if this was a Chinese movie, we'd be plotting revenge right now. For the uninitiated, a standard plot in many martial arts movies is avenging the death of a teacher.

Revenge has been the theme of a great deal of literature, not to mention history, but the Elizabethans were really bonkers about it. Revenge plays became a major genre of the the theater during the Golden Age of English theater in the late 1500s and early 1600s (i.e. before the Puritans ruined everything).

The genre of revenge plays was influenced by the Roman writer and philosopher Seneca. In a typical revenge play, someone--often a legitimate ruler or powerful person--is murdered and replaced by another powerful figure. Sometimes the ghost of the slain person will appear to a protagonist and urge them to take vengeance. Then follows a period of intrigue and subterfuge leading up to the final crisis. The protagonists and his accomplices may die before its over.

Sound familiar? Shakespeare hit all these notes in Hamlet but whacked the whole genre in the process. Harold Bloom calls it "Shakespeare's revenge upon revenge tragedy..."

PEACOCKS. Krugman's latest column focuses on the difference between posturing and real solutions to the nation's economic problems.

HEALTH CARE moves from center stage, for now.

TRAMPS LIKE US, baby, we were born to run barefoot. (The story doesn't say where, however.)

COAL. Ken Ward's Coal Tattoo has an interesting post on the EPA's new approach to mining permits.

LANGUAGES. A new view of how languages evolve challenges earlier models. Simplicity seems to help determine which ones spread the farthest.


January 28, 2010

A bit less art, a bit more Beowulf

Amblett aka Amleth aka Hamlet.

Shakespeare based his tragedy Hamlet on legends regarding a Danish prince Amleth, although the "real" prince, if there was one, was a bit more like Beowulf --or maybe even Vlad the Impaler--than the melancholy proto-existentialist we've come to love.

The earliest known written source about Amleth comes from a work by Saxo Grammiticus on the history of the Danes which was composed around 1200. The story of Amleth took place centuries before Saxo's writing. It was later taken up by Francois de Belleforest, who translated it into French in 1570, as part of his collection of tragic legends, Histoires Tragiques. The book was translated into English in 1608.

Shakespeare's Hamlet was probably written between 1599 and 1601, so this means either that he could read French or that other versions of the story were available.

Saxo's version is much bloodier, although there are some similarities. Short version: Two brothers, Orvendil and Fengi are appointed to rule Jutland. Orvendil marries Geruth and Amleth is their son. Fengi kills Orvendil and marries Geruth.

To survive, Amleth feigns madness. There is a story of him killing a hidden spy while talking to his mother (think Polonius) and of a forced trip to England in which agents of the king carry a secret letter urging the English king to kill him. As in the play, Amleth finds the letter and changes it. Things are more complicated in England, but Fengi's agents are killed (goodbye, Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern).

Amleth's revenge is bloody indeed, but he winds up marrying the king of England's daughter and becoming king of Jutland. The ending isn't all that happy since he is killed in battle thereafter.

If you want to read Saxo's version, click here and here.

There was also an earlier English stage version, possibly by Thomas Kyd, which didn't survive. Known as Ur-Hamlet, it featured the ghost of a slain father who urged Hamlet to revenge.

Whatever really happened, Shakespeare's version is cooler.

SOTU. Here's the Washington Post on President Obama's state of the union speech.

WE PROBABLY ALREADY KNEW THIS, but the latest EPI snapshot shows that the current recession is way worse than anything since WWII.

TV. Here are a few kind words about it.

PRISONS are a problem WV can't build its way out of.

DINOSAURS. What color is yours?


January 27, 2010

Out Heroding Herod

Herod "the Great."

Lately the theme at Goat Rope is Shakespeare's Hamlet, but you'll also find links and comments about current events.

As I mentioned in yesterday's post, the Elizabethan theater was a direct descendant of the miracle and mystery plays of the Middle Ages. These were examples of art-from-below and featured amateurs performing about biblical themes. In these plays, there were often stock characters as well as stock villains, which helps explain on odd expression from Hamlet.

In Act 3, there is an amusing scene in which [an actor playing] Hamlet gives acting instructions to [an actor playing] the First Player of the theater troupe that showed up in Elsinore who are about to present the play-within-the-play.

Here's the whole passage:

Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to
you, trippingly on the tongue: but if you mouth it,
as many of our players do, I had as lief the town-crier
spoke my lines. Nor do not saw the air too much with
your hand, thus, but use all gently; for in the very
torrent, tempest, and, as I may say, the whirlwind of
passion, you must acquire and beget a temperance
that may give it smoothness. O, it offends me to the
soul to hear a robustious periwig-pated fellow tear
a passion to tatters, to very rags, to split the ears of the
groundlings, who for the most part are capable of
nothing but inexplicable dumbshows and noise: I would
have such a fellow whipped for o'erdoing Termagant;
it out-herods Herod: pray you, avoid it.

(The term Termagant, by the way, in medieval European folklore was a deity that some erroneously supposed Muslims to worship. By the Renaissance, it came to mean a bully or even a "shrewish" woman.)

In the medieval miracle plays, the Herod family provided two great stock villains, Herod the Great (circa 74-4 BC) and his son Herod Antipas (circa 20 BC-39 AD). The former, according to the Gospel of Matthew, was the ruler of Judea who ordered the slaughter of the innocents after hearing of the birth of the Messiah.

The synoptic gospels portray Antipas as the one who arrested John the Baptist and was tricked into a promise that involved serving up John's head on a platter. In Luke's Gospel, Pilate sent Jesus to Antipas after his arrest. According to Luke 23:

When Herod saw Jesus, he was exceedingly pleased, for he had been wanting to see him for a long time, having heard a great deal about him; and he was hoping to see some sign given by him. So he questioned him at some length, but Jesus made no reply.

Meanwhile the chief priests and the teachers of the law stood by and vehemently accused him. And Herod, with his soldiers, treated Jesus with scorn; he mocked him by throwing a gorgeous robe round him, and then sent him back to Pilate.

Anyhow, medieval actors who got to play either Herod tended to really ham it up. That is part of the fun of playing a bad guy after all. That tradition survived well into the 20th century, as is shown by King Herod's Song in the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar.

AND LOSE THE NAME OF ACTION? Health care reform is no longer a "rush" item in the US Congress.

COURTING DISASTER. Here's Dean Baker on the recent US Supreme Court goat rope.

MORE ON THAT from E.J. Dionne here.

UNEMPLOYMENT would have been much worse--1.2 million jobs worse--without the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, according to a USA Today survey of economists, but most agree more needs to be done.

MOUNTAINTOP REMOVAL. Here's a link to the Science magazine article about the effects of this kind of mining.

MEANWHILE, BACK AT THE WV CAPITOL, the rush is on to pledge allegiance to coal and oppose climate change legislation.


January 26, 2010

A low art

Without getting too Marxist about it, you can look at different art forms in terms of whether they originated among the upper or lower classes. In the medieval period, for example, courtly love poetry was upper class art, while ballads that became the basis for later folk music were lower class art forms.

Athenian tragedy in the days of classic Greece was a great example of democratic art. Attending tragic performances was a duty of citizenship, as was voting for the winner among contesting tragic authors.

The English theater is an example of art from below. In the Middle Ages, the Bible was the main source of stories but most people were illiterate. One popular way of bringing such stories to life was through acting them out.

As towns and cities began to grow, so also did guilds and craft associations, which were sort of a combination of business venture and trade union. Various guilds would often sponsor mystery or miracle plays on holy days and festivals. Sometimes, guilds would sponsor plays based on stories related to their trade. For example, carpenter's guilds might portray the crucifixion, which boat builders or bargemen might portray Noah's flood.

As this art form caught on, traveling troupes of players would visit small towns to perform. It's easy to imagine a young Shakespeare being enthralled as a youth, thus making him one of many before and since to be stage struck.

COMING DOWN THE PIKE. The White House unveiled some program proposals aimed at assisting middle class families. The administration will also call for a freeze in spending for some domestic programs.

WHERE'S THE BEEF? Or, in this case, the movement for progressive change?

A SLOW RECOVERY seems to be on the menu.

BOTH SIDES NOW? There's been an interesting development in WV's coalfield controversies as Governor Manchin called for calm and met with mountaintop removal opponents after meeting with industry leaders.


January 25, 2010

There and gone

The theme at Goat Rope lately is Shakespeare's Hamlet, along with the usual links and comments about current events. But before I go on, I want to pass on a "deep" thought that occurred to me about the theater.

WARNING: Some thoughts that seemed deep to me at the time turned out to be either total gibberish or else totally obvious-- like the time I was blown away by the fact that every time there were three cats in a room they would make a triangle if you drew line segments between them. (OK, I'm embarrassed, but what can I say?)

Anyway, here is my my deep and quasi-Buddhist thought about theater: the coolest thing about it is its impermanence. First there is nothing, just an empty stage. Then a more or less magical performance. Then the stage is struck and it's empty again with no residue.

Not there, then all there, then all gone. Just like us. And everything else.

EASY CHOICES. Here's an op-ed by yours truly about policy options for helping WV get through the Great Recession.

HAITI. This is the latest on the American Friends Service Committee's Haiti relief efforts, along with background on its approach.

NIGHTMARES, EARTHQUAKES, HAITI AND MORE are on the menu in the latest edition of the Rev. Jim Lewis' Notes from Under the Fig Tree.

CLIMATE CHANGE. This NY Times editorial argues for the benefits of a climate change bill.