Tuesday, April 21, 2009
It is my great joy to write this piece to honor the 445th anniversary of William Shakespeare's birth, 23 April, 1564.
Curiously, although I read "Julius Caesar" and "Macbeth" in high school (I was one of the three witches), I cannot say I truly discovered the wonder of Shakespeare's art until about eight years ago. For most who harbor aspirations of the writing life the 'canon' of Shakespeare's work - indeed, the man himself! - looms so frighteningly large that one is unquestionably intimidated and too, too many of us skirt round him altogether. He is a colossus in the tide of literature, yet his 'thees' and 'thous' and scrambled syntax trip our tongues and make us giggle in discomfort.
Hearing one of his plays or sonnets is quite confusing to the uninitiated ear. We suspect the players have extraordinary talent to make sense of and 'con' all those lines! Modern film productions of the plays do not always help, either. I do wish there were many DVDs available with subtitles to make this work more approachable although I do wonder what it says about us that people listened to these plays hundreds of years ago so eagerly that Will Shakespeare's Globe Theatre was commercially profitable?
As well, I wonder at the perspicacity of both Rafe Esquith and his youngsters, fifth graders at a public school in Los Angeles for many of whom English is a second language, who learn and perform one of the Bard's plays every year to international acclaim. Yes, they have tackled "Hamlet" and "Macbeth."
So, what broke through this wall of intimidation for me and prompted me to approach these works? Actually, the question should be "Who broke through ...?" A player, one Robert Lindsay, who has performed with the Royal Shakespeare Company and in various international productions (Captain Pellew in A&E's 'Hornblower' series for one.)
At my son's urging I checked out a VHS copy of a 1982 BBC/TimeLife production of "Much Ado About Nothing" starring Robert Lindsay, happily, as Benedick. Almost immediately, in the first scene, Mr. Lindsay's delivery of a single line tore down all my trepidation about approaching this literary canon. As his buddy Claudio questions him about his opinion of the young Hero, Benedick asks, "Would you buy her that you enquire after her?"
The abhorrence evident on his face and in his tone could have been attributed to a number of conditions surrounding sixteenth century courtship and marriage, but I saw it as revulsion at the very idea that a woman was considered chattel, tangible property to be bought and sold. The hint this gave of the mind behind the plays stopped me in my tracks. And so it began.
I am but an amateur, but even so I agree wholeheartedly with Robert Graves who said, "The remarkable thing about Shakespeare is that he is really very good, in spite of all the people who say he is very good..." Once, on a plane, a woman and I discussed literature and I shared my belief that William Shakespeare's work has endured because it deserves to endure. What is that cliche? He is "a proven performer." He always delivers. My experience enforces my opinion that a bad production of a Shakespeare play is still much better than many films today.
The essence of the power of William Shakespeare's work for me is summed up in a quote from the poet Rainer Maria Rilke: "The universe is wide. In us it is deep." My experience with these plays and sonnets (remember, I am a novice) is that at some point in every exposure to them I feel that something in the depths of myself has been touched, has been given breath, has risen. A portion of another William's work, William Butler Yeats' "The Circus Animals' Desertion," applies here I believe: "Heart-mysteries there ..."
Some mystery deeply hidden rises to life. Some mystery of life unfolds as yet others remain enfolded.
Perhaps this is the sort of experience that led the noted scholar Harold Bloom to assert that William Shakespeare is responsible, in drama, for the "invention of the human." These heroes, heroines, villains, and clowns are not cookie-cutter, paper-doll, masked characters. They are everything you are and everything I am at our highest and our lowest, our most comical and most tragic.
Though only Juliet speaks the question, " ... wherefore art thou ...", Will Shakespeare's art asks us time and time again, "Who are you? Why are you you?" Juliet knows the answer does not lie in those surface characteristics of name and physique. How two-dimensional! What is the mystery of you?
I think Juliet speaks this immensely important question because Shakespeare's model for her was the woman he loved, a woman shrouded in mystery whose presence in his life, it seems to me, constantly affirmed his courage to explore, if you will, 'Wherefore art thou Will?' This woman, this 'Dark Lady', he believed to be the embodiment of fairness, kindness, and truth - truth being beauty as Keats wrote.
Juliet asks her question from the height of her balcony. Court poets of the era often placed women above, out of reach, but Shakespeare, I believe, was sending a different message for does he not find a way for Romeo to climb to that same height? Does not Juliet later provide a rope ladder for her love? William Shakespeare depicted his love on the plane whereon he believed she lived, a higher plane of consciousness, and in Sonnet 105 he adjures us, "Let not my love be called idolatry." This is no idle show. No, indeed.
William Shakespeare chose time and time again, for more than half his mortal life, to be guided by his love, his Muse, whom he praises in Sonnet 105, lines 5 and 6: "Kind is my love today, tomorrow kind/Still constant in a wondrous excellence." His answer to this kindness, excellence, and constancy is in the remaining lines of that quatrain: "Therefore my verse, to constancy confin'd/One thing expressing, leaves out difference." Near the end of this sonnet he proclaims the "wondrous scope" this constancy affords.
In devotion to his Muse he dared to reach for a heightened consciousness. He dared to leap into those "Heart-mysteries there." Given the intrigue and turmoil of court life and the Reformation I do wonder if, perhaps, his creativity was his saving grace?
Recently as I read his Sonnet 137 which begins, "Thou blind fool, Love, what dost thou to mine eyes," I began to realize that this sonnet is the Bard's assessment of his own reaction to characters modelled upon his love! If I may be so bold, I think he is telling us, "In things right/write-written true my heart and eyes have err'd/And to this false plague are they now transferr'd."
It helps me to know that performances of his writing made even Will himself stop and remember that the beauty up on the stage was a stage beauty, a painted boy if you will, because I am always knocked off my feet at some point by his work. With his players, his illusions and allusions, his dialogue, he gave us humanity and love.
So, since I am already on the ground, I think I will bow to the wisdom of William Butler Yeats:
"...Now that my ladder's gone
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart."
Top photo: Bas relief honoring William Shakespeare, the Candler Building, Atlanta, GA
Middle photo: Bud of a William Shakespeare 2000 rose from David Austen roses
Bottom photo: Shakespeare's 'globe' and books, gifts from my son
DVDs I recommend, for starters: "Slings and Arrows," Seasons 1-3; Al Pacino's "Looking for Richard," and his performance as Shylock in Michael Radford's production of "The Merchant of Venice," and, yes, Baz Luhrmann's "Romeo + Juliet" because I suspect it captures the intensity of 16th century London even as it's set in 20th-21st century California.
Wednesday, April 1, 2009
chiaroscuro [It., fro. chiaro clear, light + oscuro obscure, dark] 1: pictorial representation in terms of light and shade without regard to color 2: the arrangement or treatment of light and dark parts as a pictorial work of art
There I was, juggling rhymes and images for an existential sort of poem, smiling at the thought of those shoes with those words, when I decided to travel on downtown with my camera just for fun. I looked at the shoes inspiring the poem and said, to quote Kirsty MacColl, "Not in these shoes. I doubt you'd survive." So I laced up my Dr. Martens, packed the camera in my backpack, and headed for the train station.
My plan was simple and flexible: head back to the Calder Building then take the train to midtown, stop in at Utrecht's Art Supplies and walk on to the High Museum of Art, photographing whatever caught my eye along the way. From the moment I emerged from Peachtree Station and saw the Candler Building so close I had a feeling the day would be memorable. See, I am still rather new in town and it's only now that I have more time to devote to wandering and discovering the lay of the land.
On a hunch, in search of better light, I walked around the Candler where to my joyous surprise I discovered a bas relief honoring William Shakespeare. I figured that was likely to be the high point of the day and that was fine with me, but I saw through the viewfinder the bright white Flatiron Building and just beyond it, off to the left, a sign topping another building: Muse's. It appeared the Muse was inviting me to play so I, in my play shoes, quickly and happily obliged.
As I sought additional vantage points for shots of the Muse's building I happened across a game of chess in Woodruff Park, a game like one in "Alice in Wonderland." Walking away from the game back toward Muse's I realized the Flatiron was silhouetted against the brilliant black Equitable building. "Ah, so, the Muse seems to be showing me some sights in black-and-white," I thought, but I had no idea why nor what more to expect.
I trecked on and outside of Utrecht's I saw this whimsical white bicycle chained to a tree, a reminder to me of Michael Hoffman's production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream," wherein the hapless lovers Hermia and Lysander, Helena and Demetrius, ride bicycles into the woods and Puck leads them astray.
By far the most arresting scene on my path, however, was the sight of a monumental figure of Anubis poised as if striding toward the High Museum himself. He looked to have been carved from the night, and my thoughts turned to Juliet's praise of Romeo (III.ii.23-27):
Give me my Romeo, and when I shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night
And pay no worship to the garish sun.
Standing there on the chaotic city street I thought, too, of the revival of "West Side Story" scheduled for this year in New York.
My mind, a meandering river, turned ack to Anubis who had collected the fragments of the body of Osiris, binding and preparing them for burial, all as a prologue to Isis seeking her beloved Osiris in the Netherworld and conceiving her son, Horus, with him. This legend is particularly poignant, I think, because another legend has it that Isis was the foster-mother of Anubis. The love of this foster-son for Isis is as potent an image as those images of Isis suckling Horus, images of an ancient Egyptian madonna.
"Romeo and Juliet," a madonna, city streets - my thoughts swirled and lead me to remember a song, "Maria, Maria," a collaboration between Carlos Santana and Wyclef Jean.
Back home I marvelled at the fun I'd had following the Muse, but I wondered for quite some time, "Why me? Why black-and-white?" Imagine how I laughed when I finally realized that in yielding to the Muse's whisper, "Come on. Show me. Let me see what you would do," and drafting a poem featuring black-and-white shoes, the Muse decided to show me - in black-and-white- just what she would do!