Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Shakespeare: Hamlet

The story of Hamlet is one that was known for generations, long before Shakespeare picked up his quill. In fact many of Shakespeare's works are re-tellings of familar tales or historical events. However it is, along with King Lear and Macbeth, one of Shakespeare's best plays.
Warning: spoilers ahead. Hamlet's uncle Cladius secretly murders Hamlet's father, becomes the king of Denmark and marries Hamlet's mother. Hamlet learns the truth of this murder, but is paralyzed by his own thoughts and words from acting to avenge his father's death. In the end Hamlet does kill Cladius, but his dithering means that seven other characters also die along the way through treachery, combat, accidents and suicide.

Hamlet is a complex, thoughtful character who finds himself immobilized by his self-reflections on the purpose and meaningfulness of life. In the end we are all food for worms and so life seems futile - "To be or not to be". Is it better to be alive and suffer misery or to be dead and enjoy a long sleep. Hamlet realizes that he will die, like all men, and he would have his life extinguish knowing that he did what he thought was right rather than doing nothing but enduring a mortal existence.
Reading Hamlet well-prepared with the vocabulary, historical background and double-entendres gave me the opportunity to appreciate the other subtitles in this play, as well as the grand story without being mired in misunderstood phases and words.
For example, when Hamlet yells at Ophelia, "get thee to a nunnery" this doesn't mean a convent - well it does - but also a whorehouse. When he calls Ophelia's father a fishmonger, Hamlet is not talking about a seller of fish per se, as a fish is another name for a prostitute. Not surprisingly, Hamlet's charm probably contributed to Ophelia's watery suicide.
A final thing about reading Hamlet that I found amusing was being surprised by a line that you have heard a hundred times, but you were still not prepared to see it suddenly jump out at you in your reading.
"Neither a borrower nor a lender be, for a loan oft loses both itself and friend"
"The lady doth protest too much, me thinks"
"Frailty, thy name is woman"
"I must be cruel to be kind"
Of course....
"Something is rotten in the state of Denmark"
And Finally...
"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? To die: to sleep;"

Friday, April 16, 2010

William Shakespeare

I never had a strong desire to read Shakespeare (1564-1616), the only work I read in high school was Romeo and Juliet. I found him abstruse, esoteric, inaccessible and I could not appreciate his language. I thought that anyone who expressed pleasure or appreciation in reading Shakespeare was more refined than myself, or merely pretentious.

Living in England for two years, and visiting Stratford-upon-Avon, was transformative for me. Being in the home of the Bard, and experiencing the reverence he was shown in the UK, made me want to give him a second chance. During my time in England I read Henry IV Part One, Macbeth and Julius Caesar and watched the The Merchant of Venice, The Tempest and Henry V. I also read a humorous biography by Bill Bryson, "Shakespeare: The World as Stage".

More recently I finished the more critical biography "Will in the World" written by Harvard professor Stephen Greenblatt. This was an excellent resource for understanding Shakespeare, not only detailing how the events of his life shaped his writing, but also explaining hidden messages behind many of his most famous plays. Although there are great gaps in Shakespeare's life we do know where he was and what he was doing at some very specific dates and places. It is also possible to see how the spirit of the times in Elizabethan and Jacobean England influenced his works.

I do not subscribe to the theory that Shakespeare's works were ghost written by another author since we can clearly see how many of his greatest works were drawn from events in Will's own life. I agree that it is remarkable that an relatively uneducated, unrefined man from the boondocks could become the apotheosized master of the English language. However such success from obscurity to greatness could be said about many people in history: Lincoln, Napoleon, Einstein, Buffet, etc..

I could not appreciate nor understand Shakespeare in my youth. However, life's lessons and experiences have significantly improved my ability to relate to his words and enjoy them. Still, I find reading "Cliff Notes" before I tackle a piece invaluable, since the vocabulary and context of many words and phrases is concealed by the 400 years that have past since they were first recorded.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Reading outside the GBWW schedule

I recently realized I was perilously behind in my classical reading blog, especially in the Great Books of the Western World (GBWW) reading schedule. I have not stopped reading, but I have been diverted by books outside the GBWW series.

One contemporary book that I finished was the political/philosophical satire called "Aristotle and an Aardvark Go to Washington"by Cathcart and Klein. This book targeted politicians and well-known polemicists who use illogical, evasive or deceptive arguments to persuade the public. Although I did enjoy it, I found it overtly partisan and not as entertaining as Carthcart and Klein's last book "Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar".

A more stimulating book was "Viva la Repartee" by Mardy Grothe. This collection of retorts, rejoinders and witty, pithy comebacks from celebrities, politicians and others was glued to my hands. It often made me think, "Why didn't I say that?" I think it did stir up some creative thoughts in me which I hope will surface when I need a riposte.

A modern classic I finished was "Empire Falls" by Richard Russo, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2002. This books describes a small, dying town in Maine and the characters that dwell in it. Since my formative years were spent in small towns I could easily relate to the situations the characters found themselves in. Divisions of wealth and class are much more apparent when you cannot escape from your own small world. The story was also well told and I found the denizens of this town to be vivid and sympathetic.

In our book club we read a classic of Victorian English literature, "Jane Eyre" by Charlotte Bronte. Published in 1847, this is the story of a young woman overcoming poverty, loneliness and distrust. By holding true to herself she becomes educated, develops close friends and eventually discovers love and becomes independently wealthy. This was a satisfying, but voluminous novel (nearly 600 pages) and Bronte's vocabulary required my dictionary's frequent consultation. This was a book I wanted to read and I am glad to have had the opportunity to enjoy it.

A final book that I finished in the last few months was the "The Life of Pi" by Yann Martel. This novel won the prestigious "Man Booker Prize" in 2002, which is awarded to the best work of English fiction produced that year by a "Commonwealth Nation" (e.g. UK, Canada). It is the story of a young Indian boy whose father is transporting his zoo from India to Canada when the ship carrying them sinks. The young boy, Pi, must then survive a long journey alone in a lifeboat, his only companion a hungry tiger. One of the more interesting parts of this book is how Pi decides to become a Christian, a Hindu, and a Muslim all at once, which provides some fun and thoughtful moments.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Montaigne - Customs, Education and Morality

Many people believe that their laws and customs are natural and universal and derive from reason. However, a studied inquiry will often reveal that the reasoning is flawed or stands on weak foundations. Moreover as we examine other cultures (as Montaigne did) we can see that our "truths" are not universally shared.
Montaigne describes the idyllic and pure lives of savages in the New World and says that compared to them we are barbarians. Some may be cannibals, eating their dead enemies, but how is that worse than the atrocities committed in the wars of religion in Europe (as well as the Inquisition). Many people mindlessly follow their customs without ever questioning them. Just because we do not understand something does not mean it is wrong. Likewise, the fact that we follow the rules and customs of our society does not validate their virtue.

Montaigne describes his own education and says that too much emphasis is placed on memorizing details of little consequence. What students should be learning is good judgement.

We also need to be teaching practical knowledge and encourage students to use what they have learned.
"For wisdom is not only to be acquired, but also utilized" - Cicero.

Repeating quotes without comprehension also does not educate. Ironically, Montaigne quotes someone to support this.

"They have learned to speak from others, not from themselves" - Cicero

We should be selective in what we learn, but not exclusive. Some of the best thoughts come from "the lower end of the table".

Good and Evil
Montaigne said that good and evil are partially determined by our opinions. The three evils that many fear are Death, Pain and Poverty.

It is not sensible to fear death since it is natural and we are only afraid of the unknown. Pain is more difficult since it works the body against the soul. However, pain is often only experienced in the context of the situation. Pain for beauty, honor or wealth is not felt as strongly as when we experience pain in the absence of a future reward. Therefore pain appears to be some thing variable to the opinion of the sufferer.

Montaigne does not talk as much about being poor as he does about avarice and the accumulation and burdens of wealth. Montaigne was from a well-to-do family so he would know the latter better than the former. He says that being wealthy will not make you happy, it only changes your condition. Money is like wearing clothes to keep warm, the heat comes from you, not the clothes. Being happy comes from how we view and judge our own situation.

Michel de Montaigne

Michel Eyquem de Montaigne (1533 – 1592) was a French renaissance scholar who is famous for his "Essays", a series of short topical works which are partially autobiographical. In these essays, Montaigne talks openly about good and evil, education, customs. religion and other subjects from his own point of view.

What sets Montaigne apart is his great skepticism, suspended judgment and tolerance. He asks us not to accept ideas, laws and beliefs without careful investigation and justification. Montaigne provides examples from his own life and experience, and frequently quotes authors from antiquity (Plutarch, Livy, Cicero, Seneca) to support his case. Being a proponent for skepticism, Montaigne even tells the reader to doubt him. His often used and most well-known quote is, "What do I know?"

I found Montaigne essays easy to digest, entertaining and surprisingly applicable to contemporary life.

Some quotes that I enjoyed:

"Obsession is the wellspring of genius and madness."

"Life in itself is neither good nor evil, it is the place of good and evil, according to what you make it. "

"To forbid us anything is to make us have a mind for it. "

"Not being able to govern events, I govern myself."

"Nothing is so firmly believed as that which least is known."

"When I play with my cat, how do I know that she is not passing time with me rather than I with her?"