Shakespeare’s Birthday

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450 years after the birth of one of the world’s most influential and often-quoted writers, it’s still astonishing to realize just how much of our perception of the major figures of that time is influenced by Shakespeare’s writings. Until the discovery of the skeleton of deposed usurper Richard III, there was no solid evidence that he had any kind of physical deformity, yet we all think of him as the hideous hunchbacked demon of the play RICHARD III.  Representations of Henry VIII’s “Great Matter” are still colored by Shakespeare’s depiction of events, especially the infamous moment in the Blackfriars court when Katherine, called by the bailiff, instead kneeled at her husband’s feet and made an impassioned plea, then got up and left. There is some contemporary evidence for this, but still – what a great moment for a playwright to use.

Shakespeare was writing the sixteenth-century equivalent of propaganda films. They’re entertainment, first and foremost, but he’s careful to ally himself with the side that won at Bosworth Field in 1485.

We still revere Henry V, and think of Agincourt because of the play. Yes, he appears to have been the medieval ideal – young, handsome, militarily successful – but he also continued decades of war and then conveniently died before he could solidify his winnings.  England spent the next 150 years steadily retreating from France.

In some ways, I think it’s a pity Shakespeare never got the chance to write about the Stuart kings. Imagine what he could have done with Charles I.

Without further commentary, I present to you this famous monologue from HENRY VIII:

KATHERINE: Sir, I desire you do me right and justice,
And to bestow your pity on me; for
I am a most poor woman and a stranger,
Born out of your dominions: having here
No judge indifferent, nor no more assurance
Of equal friendship and proceeding. Alas, sir,
In what have I offended you? What cause
Hath my behavior given to your displeasure
That thus you should proceed to put me off
And take your good grace from me? Heaven witness,
I have been to you a true and humble wife,
At all times to your will conformable,
Even in fear to kindle your dislike,
Yea, subject to your countenance–glad or sorry
As I saw it inclined. When was the hour
I ever contradicted your desire
Or made it not mine too? Or which of your friends
Have I not strove to love, although I knew
He were mine enemy? What friend of mine
That had to him derived your anger, did I
Continue in my liking? nay, gave notice
He was from thence discharged? Sir, call to mind
That I have been your wife in this obedience
Upward of twenty years, and have been blest
With many children by you. If in the course
And process of this time you can report,
And prove it too, against mine honor aught,
My bond to wedlock, or my love and duty
Against your sacred person, in God’s name
Turn me away, and let the foul’st contempt
Shut door upon me, and so give me up
To the sharp’st kind of justice. Please you, sir,
The king your father was reputed for
A prince most prudent, of an excellent
And unmatched wit and judgment. Ferdinand,
My father, King of Spain, was reckoned one
The wisest prince that there had reigned by many
A year before. It is not to be questioned
That they had gathered a wise council to them
Of every realm, that did debate this business,
Who deemed our marriage lawful. Wherefore I humbly
Beseech you, sir, to spare me till I may
Be by my friends in Spain advised, whose counsel
I will implore. If not, i’ th’ name of God,
Your pleasure be fulfilled!

Best Picture Project: 12 Years A Slave

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12 Years A Slave (Best Picture, 2013)

So, as a middle-class white girl, this is a tricky movie to review. If I criticize it too much, I come across as a racist jerk, and if I gush about it I’m just saying what everyone else has already said. Just thought I’d put that out there. Food for thought.

In spite of the fact that this film won the Academy Award for Best Picture while it was still showing in theaters, I waited until it was out on DVD to watch it. I expected, rightly, that I would want to pause and walk away for breaks sometimes. That said, I’ve had the DVD in my hands for over a week and have been experiencing severe approach avoidance. I think it is fair to say that if I had not embarked on this project to watch all Best Picture winners, I would never have watched this film. I admire its tackling of difficult subject material, and I applaud the Academy for recognizing its merit, but I don’t like it. As a friend of mine, the blogger over at Cinematic Excrement, remarked, “It’s the best movie I never need to see again.”

We all learn about the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 in high school history class.  That law, enacted as a part of the Compromise of 1850, allowed Southern slaveholders to track escaped slaves even into the Northern states.  It seems that the effect of the law was many more cases like that of Solomon Northrup, the protagonist of 12 YEARS A SLAVE, in which a free black person could be “identified” as a fugitive and taken back to the South as a captive. Instead of bringing North and South together, it pushed them farther apart as abolitionists, fired by publications like Harriet Beecher Stowe’s UNCLE TOM’S CABIN, protested the law in word and deed.

12 YEARS A SLAVE, however, begins in 1841, nearly a full decade before the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act.

The outstanding performances of Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong’o have garnered much deserved praise, and I cannot say more of them than has already been said in many other far more prestigious places. The only word for both, especially Ejiofor, is “astonishing.”

I also find the performances of certain of the white characters particularly interesting. Somehow it’s easier to see them as representing archetypes of this kind of story than as unique individuals. There’s Benedict Cumberbatch, who is currently appearing in Every Film Project Made, as a kind, sympathetic, but financially strapped slaveowner. His polar opposite is Michael Fassbender’s depiction of the more stereotypical harsh-to-the-point-of-bloodthirsty master, who is more than matched by his harsh, bitter, jealous wife (Sarah Paulson). And of course the abolitionist Bass (Canadian, but somehow has a Southern drawl), played by Brad Pitt.

Speaking of which, what is it with Fassbender and characters who are devoid of morals? Who are, for lack of a better word, evil? There’s evil slaveowner who amuses himself by waking up the slaves in the middle of the night to dance for him (does that sound like a 19th-century CRIMINAL MINDS episode to anyone else?), there’s the incapable-of-feeling sex addict of SHAME, and of course Magneto in X-MEN: FIRST CLASS. Admittedly, Magneto’s merely reflecting his life experiences, but still.  Hes capable of going to dark places and inhabiting such levels of anger that I’m a little afraid of him, to be honest.

In spite of the fact that this film was dark and difficult and it is unlikely to be one that I seek out for subsequent viewings, it was not quite as difficult to watch as I had anticipated.

As a final note, I’d like to add something I noticed in the credits. The names of the cast and the director (Steve McQueen) are well known by now.  What I had not seen in any of the reviews, summaries, or lists of vital statistics is the fact that the film had the eminent historian Henry Louis Gates, Jr. as its history consultant. That, to me, is quite the stamp of approval.

So that’s it until next year’s Academy Awards ceremony. Any guesses on what the next Best Picture will be? Please leave your predictions in the comments!

National Poetry Month: I Am Not Yours

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Well, it’s April again, and that means it’s National Poetry Month here in the United States. I’ve been pondering what to do about it this year, since I’m really not much of a poetry reader.  The ones I’ve posted over the past two years are really the ones that come to mind when I think of poems I like.

But it occurred to me that I have spent nearly half my life in choirs, and listen to a lot of music. So this month I’m starting with songs and seeing where they take me.

This first poem is going to seem like an immediate contradiction of the plan to post different texts that have been set to music, but bear with me.

During my senior year of high school, I joined a choir that was intense and amazing and challenging.  One of the pieces we tackled was a setting of Sara Teasdale’s poem “There Will Be Rest.”  Eventually it proved too challenging even for us, and after only one or two attempts during concerts the director removed it from our repertoire.  Indeed, one of those attempts stands out in my mind as a spectacular failure – the high voices, the sopranos and tenors, pushed so sharp that eventually the entire soprano section had to drop out.  Not good!

But in my memory the poem and the music shimmer gently, like dewdrops on a spiderweb or the way starlight is sometimes set to music. And it’s this great unattained milestone in my mind, so I’ve never forgotten it.  I went to poets.org to try and find the poem again.

Instead, I found this other one by Sara Teasdale that left my jaw on the floor.

I Am Not Yours

by Sara Teasdale

I am not yours, not lost in you,
Not lost, although I long to be
Lost as a candle lit at noon,
Lost as a snowflake in the sea.

You love me, and I find you still
A spirit beautiful and bright,
Yet I am I, who long to be
Lost as a light is lost in light.

Oh plunge me deep in love — put out
My senses, leave me deaf and blind,
Swept by the tempest of your love,
A taper in a rushing wind.

This perfectly verbalizes something that’s happened to me a few times now. I find myself involved with someone who’s good and kind and funny and by all accounting someone who is a great match for me, and I desperately wish I was more attracted to him.

It happens to everyone at some point, and it’s so difficult.  We want the fairy tale romance, to be swept off our feet and let the world fall away, but modern cynicism says that’s not possible.  Except people keep writing about it, so it must happen to someone, right?

There’s this popular idea that if you have to stop and think about it, you haven’t been in love. And anyone who’s been in love will tell you that for a while at least the world DOES fall away.

I suppose I just have to keep looking.

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