February 13, 2010

Unhistoric acts

I have long suspected that the people whose lives have been the most useful to others aren't necessarily the ones who get all the attention. The last lines of Middlemarch by George Eliot (aka Mary Anne or Marian Evans) sum this up nicely:

"...the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs."

February 12, 2010

An antic disposition

(This blog is taking a leisurely stroll through Hamlet at the moment. If you like this kind of thing, please click on earlier posts. You'll also find links and comments about current events.)

The scene where Hamlet meets the ghost of his father pretty much seals the deal for the rest of the tragedy. The ghost told him something he had been wondering about anyway--"O my prophetic soul!" He promises revenge.

There's just one problem: Hamlet is Hamlet, meaning that he won't just run down from the battlements and whack Claudius. He'll agonize, doubt himself, doubt the veracity of the vision, and doubt his own sanity.

But he'll start by feigning madness. As he tells his friends,

Here, as before, never, so help you mercy,
How strange or odd soe'er I bear myself—
As I perchance hereafter shall think meet
To put an antic disposition on—
That you, at such times seeing me, never shall,
With arms encumber'd thus, or this head-shake,
Or by pronouncing of some doubtful phrase,
As “Well, well, we know,” or “We could, an if we would,”
Or “If we list to speak” or “There be, an if they might,”
Or such ambiguous giving out, to note
That you know aught of me; this is not to do,
So grace and mercy at your most need help you,

Horatio, Bernardo and Marcellus swear, as the old mole of a ghost himself commands, and receive this thanks from Hamlet:

With all my love I do commend me to you;
And what so poor a man as Hamlet is
May do to express his love and friending to you,
God willing, shall not lack. Let us go in together;
And still your fingers on your lips, I pray.
The time is out of joint. O cursed spite,
That ever I was born to set it right!

One wonders, however, how much of the madness was feigned. Aside from murder and family messes, he was already depressed to start with and would become moreso after Ophelia withdraws her affection and other events unfold.

That would probably be enough to give lots of folks an antic disposition.

LABOR. This past year should have been way better for labor unions than it was.

IF YOU CAN STOMACH IT, here's a little more health care hypocrisy.

AND WHILE WE'RE AT IT, health care profits have jumped through the roof.


COULD CHICKEN MANURE save the world? If so, El Cabrero can hook y'all up.

LOVE, SEX, AND/OR MARRIAGE are all discussed in the latest edition of the Rev. Jim Lewis' Notes from Under the Fig Tree. Hamlet, of course, would say "get thee to a nunnery."


February 11, 2010

Sulphurous and tormenting flames

England was in religious turmoil in the 1500s and 1600s as the tide of the reformation ebbed and flowed under Henry the VIII, Mary Tudor and Elizabeth. People have often speculated about Shakespeare's religious sympathies and whether he or his family were secretly Catholic. My guess is that, like many English people of that period, he was a bit of both.

Just based on a reading of the plays, he always struck me as fairly sympathetic towards Catholicism. One example of that happens in Act 1 scene 4 of Hamlet, when the ghost of Old Hamlet describes his torments in Purgatory, a Catholic idea if ever there was one.

Apparently Old Hamlet's experience of Purgatory was a lot nastier than that described by Dante. In his words:

My hour is almost come,
When I to sulphurous and tormenting flames
Must render up myself...

I am thy father's spirit,
Doom'd for a certain term to walk the night,
And for the day confined to fast in fires,
Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature
Are burnt and purged away. But that I am forbid
To tell the secrets of my prison-house,
I could a tale unfold whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,
Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres,
Thy knotted and combined locks to part
And each particular hair to stand on end,
Like quills upon the fretful porpentine:
But this eternal blazon must not be
To ears of flesh and blood.

All this brings up a point in the art of tragic murder. If you REALLY had it in for somebody, you didn't just whack them. Instead, you waited until they were in a state of sin, preferably mortal, and THEN whacked them. That way the dying was the easy part and the worst was yet to come.

SIGN OF THE TIMES. Food stamps, once stigmatized, have gained greater support across political lines.

DOUBLE STANDARDS. Some of the most vocal opponents of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, aka the stimulus, are all to eager to take advantage of it.

UNDERVALUED. If we placed a dollar value on the necessary services nature provides for free, we'd probably do things very differently.



February 10, 2010

The primrose path of dalliance

If you know anything about Shakespeare's tragedies, you know that a lot of bodies are going to pile up by the end. Hamlet's whole family will wind up shuffling off this mortal coil, but they won't be alone. Another whole family will join them before it's over.

That would be the family of Polonius, counselor to Claudius and a major twit as well. Apparently a widower, he has a son, Laertes, and a daughter Ophelia. Laertes has been studying (or, more likely, partying) in Paris and returned to Denmark for the funeral/wedding. Those ceremonies concluded, he seeks and is granted permission to go back to France.

In the meantime, Hamlet has begun or revived his courtship of Ophelia since he returned from his studies in Wittenberg. She, alas, will be double-teamed by son and father in Act 1, scene 3 and told not to trust Hamlet's pledges of affection and even to break off the relationship.

Laertes takes aim first, warning her not to take Hamlet's professions seriously:

For Hamlet and the trifling of his favour,
Hold it a fashion and a toy in blood,
A violet in the youth of primy nature,
Forward, not permanent, sweet, not lasting,
The perfume and suppliance of a minute; No more...

He (no doubt hypocritically) urges her to chastity:

Then weigh what loss your honour may sustain,
If with too credent ear you list his songs,
Or lose your heart, or your chaste treasure open
To his unmaster'd importunity.
Fear it, Ophelia, fear it, my dear sister,
And keep you in the rear of your affection,
Out of the shot and danger of desire.
The chariest maid is prodigal enough,
If she unmask her beauty to the moon:
Virtue itself 'scapes not calumnious strokes:
The canker galls the infants of the spring,
Too oft before their buttons be disclosed,
And in the morn and liquid dew of youth
Contagious blastments are most imminent.
Be wary then; best safety lies in fear:
Youth to itself rebels, though none else near.

Ophelia appears to yield, but she knows a double standard when she hears it and urges him to take his own advice:

I shall the effect of this good lesson keep,
As watchman to my heart. But, good my brother,
Do not, as some ungracious pastors do,
Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven;
Whiles, like a puff'd and reckless libertine,
Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads,
And recks not his own rede.

SPEAKING OF DALLIANCE, here's an article on edible aphrodisiacs.

SCARRING. Here's a sobering look at the possible long term impacts of the Great Recession.

MYSTERIOUS PRESENCES and near death experiences are discussed here.


February 09, 2010

A little more than kin, and less than kind

Russian actor Nikolai Massalitinov as Claudius with Olga Knipper as Gertrude in the Moscow Art Theatre's production of Hamlet (1911), by way of wikipedia.

For first time visitors, the theme lately is Hamlet, but you'll also find links and comments about current events. If you like this kind of thing, please click on earlier posts.

We first get to meet what's left of Hamlet's family in scene II of Act I, which opens with the usurper Claudius justifying the hasty marriage to Gertrude that followed Old Hamlet's mysterious death:

Though yet of Hamlet our dear brother's death
The memory be green, and that it us befitted
To bear our hearts in grief and our whole kingdom
To be contracted in one brow of woe,
Yet so far hath discretion fought with nature
That we with wisest sorrow think on him,
Together with remembrance of ourselves.
Therefore our sometime sister, now our queen,
The imperial jointress to this warlike state,
Have we, as 'twere with a defeated joy,--
With an auspicious and a dropping eye,
With mirth in funeral and with dirge in marriage,
In equal scale weighing delight and dole,--
Taken to wife: nor have we herein barr'd
Your better wisdoms, which have freely gone
With this affair along.

Young Hamlet isn't exactly wearing a party hat and is chided for his excessive grief. In what would turn out to be a big mistake, he is asked by Claudius and Gertrude to stay in Elsinore rather than resume his studies in Wittenberg. Note to Claudius: dude, you screwed up there big time.

Along with family hassles and political intrigue, the scene also contains Hamlet's first soliloquy in favor of death. Here's a taste:

O, that this too too solid flesh would melt
Thaw and resolve itself into a dew!
Or that the Everlasting had not fix'd
His canon 'gainst self-slaughter! O God! God!
How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable,
Seem to me all the uses of this world!
Fie on't! ah fie! 'tis an unweeded garden,
That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature
Possess it merely...

I've had days like that...

FROM THERE TO HERE. Here's Jared Bernstein on how bad the Great Recession is (was?) and how far we've moved back from the brink.

FOR WHAT IT'S WORTH, over 60 percent of Americans opposed the US Supreme Court's Americans United ruling, which opens the floodgates for corporate contributions in political campaigns.

UNLIKELY ALLIES. For the last few years, some of the usual suspects have been trying to get a bill passed in the WV legislature that would set up voluntary employee retirement accounts for workers without pensions. It would be handled by the State Treasurer's office through payroll deductions and workers could continue to build savings as they moved from job to job. Recently, the WV Center on Budget and Policy teamed up with the Heritage Foundation to build support for this measure, something that doesn't happen every day.

NICE KITTY. Here's video of a wild Sumatran tiger and her cubs.


February 08, 2010

A mote to trouble the mind's eye

The opening scene of Shakespeare's Hamlet does a masterful job of setting the mood. It is midnight on the battlements of Elsinore castle. Bernardo and Marcellus relieve their fellow soldier Francisco.

They are basically grunts, far down the chain of power and command, but they sense something is amiss. Old Hamlet, their king, died under mysterious circumstances. His brother Claudius married the widowed Gertrude and displaced young Hamlet from the succession. There are rumors of war with young Fortinbras of Norway and a military buildup is in progress which "does not divide the Sunday from the week." On top of everything else, a ghost resembling Old Hamlet has been seen in full war gear the last two nights.

Bernardo and Marcellus have invited the scholar Horatio to witness this for himself. Horatio, full of the "modern" learning is skeptical but is convinced when the ghost appears. All agree this is a bad sign, one which reminds Horatio of those said to have occurred at the time of Caesar's assassination:

A mote it is to trouble the mind's eye.
In the most high and palmy state of Rome,
A little ere the mightiest Julius fell,
The graves stood tenantless and the sheeted dead
Did squeak and gibber in the Roman streets:
As stars with trains of fire and dews of blood,
Disasters in the sun; and the moist star
Upon whose influence Neptune's empire stands
Was sick almost to doomsday with eclipse:
And even the like precurse of fierce events,
As harbingers preceding still the fates
And prologue to the omen coming on,
Have heaven and earth together demonstrated
Unto our climatures and countrymen.--

I especially like his courteous if unsuccessful effort to converse with the spirit:

Stay, illusion!
If thou hast any sound, or use of voice,
Speak to me:
If there be any good thing to be done,
That may to thee do ease and grace to me,
Speak to me:
If thou art privy to thy country's fate,
Which, happily, foreknowing may avoid,
O, speak!
Or if thou hast uphoarded in thy life
Extorted treasure in the womb of earth,
For which, they say, you spirits oft walk in death...

The spirit remains silent and they resolve to tell young Hamlet of it the next day. It's a scene that has worked to get the audience's--and the reader's--attention for the last 400 years.

JOBS. Here's an analysis by the Economic Policy Institute on the latest trends in the jobs picture.

MINE WARS, PAST AND PRESENT. The Charleston Gazette's Jim Haught had a good column in Sunday's paper reviewing the history of West Virginia's mining conflicts--including the latest battle to get Blair Mountain listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

GRIDLOCK. Here's a discourse on the disfunctionality of the US Senate.

HERE'S A SHOCK. A coal industry-commissioned study of itself found it to be all good all the time. By the way, a belated happy birthday to Ken Ward's uber-blog Coal Tattoo!