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Plump Jack

William Shakespeare

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(Henry IV Act II Scene 4)

Henry V
Well, here I am set.

Falstaff
And here I stand: judge, my masters.

Henry V
Now, Harry, whence come you?

Falstaff
My noble lord, from Eastcheap.

Henry V
The complaints I hear of thee are grievous.

Falstaff
‘Sblood, my lord, they are false: nay, I’ll tickle
ye for a young prince, i’ faith.

Henry V
Swearest thou, ungracious boy? henceforth ne’er look
on me. Thou art violently carried away from grace:
there is a devil haunts thee in the likeness of an
old fat man; a tun of man is thy companion. Why
dost thou converse with that trunk of humours, that
bolting-hutch of beastliness, that swollen parcel
of dropsies, that huge bombard of sack, that stuffed
cloak-bag of guts, that roasted Manningtree ox with
the pudding in his belly, that reverend vice, that
grey iniquity, that father ruffian, that vanity in
years? Wherein is he good, but to taste sack and
drink it? wherein neat and cleanly, but to carve a
capon and eat it? wherein cunning, but in craft?
wherein crafty, but in villany? wherein villanous,
but in all things? wherein worthy, but in nothing?

Falstaff
I would your grace would take me with you: whom
means your grace?

Henry V
That villanous abominable misleader of youth,
Falstaff, that old white-bearded Satan.

Falstaff
My lord, the man I know.

Henry V
I know thou dost.

Falstaff
But to say I know more harm in him than in myself,
were to say more than I know. That he is old, the
more the pity, his white hairs do witness it; but
that he is, saving your reverence, a whoremaster,
that I utterly deny. If sack and sugar be a fault,
God help the wicked! if to be old and merry be a
sin, then many an old host that I know is damned: if
to be fat be to be hated, then Pharaoh’s lean kine
are to be loved. No, my good lord; banish Peto,
banish Bardolph, banish Poins: but for sweet Jack
Falstaff, kind Jack Falstaff, true Jack Falstaff,
valiant Jack Falstaff, and therefore more valiant,
being, as he is, old Jack Falstaff, banish not him
thy Harry’s company, banish not him thy Harry’s
company: banish plump Jack, and banish all the world.

You knew this was coming didn’t you? You didn’t seriously think I was going to do a whole week of Shakespeare without getting in at least a few plugs for that greatest of all Shakespeare’s characters – my namesake, Falstaff.

This dialogue is as good an illustration as any of just why Falstaff is such a favourite of mine – it’s a delightful exchange, featuring the Bard at his most playful. Prince Hal has been summoned to the court of his father, and Falstaff and Hal are acting out, in jest, the scene that shall ensue when Hal appears before his father and is roundly scolded. At first Falstaff plays the King, while Hal plays himself, and Falstaff proceeds to admonish Hal for keeping company with a bunch of villians and thieves (they have just, as a trick stolen money from Falstaff), condemning all of Hal’s companions save one, one only, a man of cheerful look, pleasing eye and most noble carriage, one Falstaff, who alone among Hal’s friends bears the mark of true virtue. At this point Hal, accusing Falstaff of not being royal enough, takes over the role of his father and makes Falstaff stand in for himself, after which the scene above is played out.

It’s a glorious, glorious scene, full of bombast and wit, mined with clever little asides that are guaranteed to make the audience laugh as much as the two characters playing out the scene, but the ultimate effect is as tender as it is hilarious – you can feel the warmth between these two people, the easy-going nature of the friendship between this fat, aging knight, and this prince of the realm.

Taken outside the context of the play though, the speech says much more (isn’t it amazing how Shakespeare can do this – even the silliest speeches he writes turn out to have such a wealth of meaning and beauty). Falstaff is craven and ridiculous, he is a person who cannot be taken seriously, he is a man to be laughed at, to be scorned, a man with little merit save the fact that he is mostly harmless. And yet without Falstaff, without the spirit of folly and jest that he represents, this would be a poorer play. Without Falstaff the world would be unbearably dry, suffocatingly serious. Without Falstaff, we would have no one to laugh at, and reality would overwhelm us.

Falstaff is more than just a brilliant character in a memorable play. Falstaff is a reminder to all of us that we must not take ourselves too seriously, that we must remember to laugh, must be prepared to make ourselves ridiculous. Falstaff speaks for the fool in all of us, and his is a merry yet human voice.

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May 6, 2006 at 3:11 pm 1 comment

Ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes and groves

William Shakespeare

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(The Tempest, Act V)

Ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes and groves,
And ye that on the sands with printless foot
Do chase the ebbing Neptune and do fly him
When he comes back; you demi-puppets that
By moonshine do the green sour ringlets make,
Whereof the ewe not bites, and you whose pastime
Is to make midnight mushrooms, that rejoice
To hear the solemn curfew; by whose aid,
Weak masters though ye be, I have bedimm’d
The noontide sun, call’d forth the mutinous winds,
And ‘twixt the green sea and the azured vault
Set roaring war: to the dread rattling thunder
Have I given fire and rifted Jove’s stout oak
With his own bolt; the strong-based promontory
Have I made shake and by the spurs pluck’d up
The pine and cedar: graves at my command
Have waked their sleepers, oped, and let ’em forth
By my so potent art. But this rough magic
I here abjure, and, when I have required
Some heavenly music, which even now I do,
To work mine end upon their senses that
This airy charm is for, I’ll break my staff,
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,
And deeper than did ever plummet sound
I’ll drown my book.

I’ve already blogged about The Tempest elsewhere, so I won’t bother to go over it again. Suffice it to say that I love how much distance this speech covers – going from the gently wondering, to the roaringly proud, to the surrender of the self. Absolute power corrupts, we are told, and certainly in many ways Prospero is a true tyrant. Yet here he is abjuring the very power he has spent so long attaining. And for that alone it is impossible not to be in awe of him.

May 5, 2006 at 7:24 am 2 comments

Come Away, Come Away, Death

William Shakespeare

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(Twelfth Night Act II Scene 4)

Come away, come away, death,
And in sad cypress let me be laid;
Fly away, fly away, breath;
I am slain by a fair cruel maid.
My shroud of white, stuck all with yew,
O prepare it;
My part of death no one so true
Did share it.

Not a flower, not a flower sweet,
On my black coffin let there be strown:
Not a friend, not a friend greet
My poor corpse where my bones shall be thrown:
A thousand thousand sighs to save,
Lay me, O, where
Sad true lover never find my grave,
To weep there.

Twelfth Night was the first Shakespeare play I ever read. I was 14 and very bored and Twelfth Night was all I could get my hands on. How bad could it be, I figured, and settled in to read.

It was the start of a beautiful friendship.

There’s something very special about your first Shakespeare. No matter what follows, or how many ‘better’ plays you read, you always keep a soft corner in your heart for the play that started it all [1]. So perhaps it’s only that which makes Viola one of my favourites among Shakespeare’s heroines, and makes me think that Twelfth Night is a play especially rich in secondary characters. It really is an ensemble play – Orsino, Olivia, Malvolio, Feste, Sir Toby, Andrew Aguecheek. Such a truly delightful cast, that.

Today’s poem is the one piece in the series that has almost nothing to do with the actual action of the play it is taken from. It is a stand alone poem, a song that the Clown sings at Orsino’s bidding, a set piece. Yet it is a beautiful lyric for all that, yearning and sorrowful, it’s music evident even when it is simply spoken aloud.

Orsino, asking for the song to be played, describes it as:

“that piece of song,
That old and antique song we heard last night:
Methought it did relieve my passion much,
More than light airs and recollected terms
Of these most brisk and giddy-paced times”

But for me the truer description is on page 1 of the play: “that strain again! it had a dying fall”.

[1] At least so I’ve found and so some of my friends have told me. What happens if the first Shakespeare play you read is Merry Wives of Windsor I can’t say.

May 4, 2006 at 6:00 pm Leave a comment

Bottom’s Dream

William Shakespeare

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Bottom
[Awaking] When my cue comes, call me, and I will
answer: my next is, 'Most fair Pyramus.' Heigh-ho!
Peter Quince! Flute, the bellows-mender! Snout,
the tinker! Starveling! God's my life, stolen
hence, and left me asleep! I have had a most rare
vision. I have had a dream, past the wit of man to
say what dream it was: man is but an ass, if he go
about to expound this dream. Methought I was–there
is no man can tell what. Methought I was,–and
methought I had,–but man is but a patched fool, if
he will offer to say what methought I had. The eye
of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not
seen, man's hand is not able to taste, his tongue
to conceive, nor his heart to report, what my dream
was. I will get Peter Quince to write a ballad of
this dream: it shall be called Bottom's Dream,
because it hath no bottom; and I will sing it in the
latter end of a play, before the duke:
peradventure, to make it the more gracious, I shall
sing it at her death.

– Midsummer Night's Dream Act IV Scene 1

A personal favourite.

Which of us has not experienced this? Which of us has not had a vision or an idea fill our heads with wonder, and then fade into the ordinary when we have tried to describe it? Every authentic act of prose or poetry is an attempt to overcome precisely this tongue-tiedness, to reach past the heaviness of language to the transcendent imagination, to the splendour of our dreams.

There's something very touching about this speech. It is a speech that captures perfectly that sense of transitory wakefulness, that moment when you are both wide awake and still dreaming, that instant before you fade back into the everyday. It is a speech that manages to be both deliciously funny and gently sympathetic, that combines the tender with the ridiculous in a way that is the essence of good comedy.

But most of all, it is, somehow, a very vulnerable speech. There are many, many instances in Shakespeare where he writes of dreams and visions with great skill. Here he resists that temptation, and chooses, instead to be simpler, more artless, even foolish. And it is precisely this vulnerability, this helplessness in the face of great beauty, that makes Bottom's Dream ring so true.

April 30, 2006 at 9:11 pm 2 comments

Macbeth Act IV Scene 1

William Shakespeare

Listen (Part 1)

Listen (Part 2)

First Witch
Thrice the brinded cat hath mew’d.

Second Witch
Thrice and once the hedge-pig whined.

Third Witch
Harpier cries ‘Tis time, ’tis time.

First Witch
Round about the cauldron go;
In the poison’d entrails throw.
Toad, that under cold stone
Days and nights has thirty-one
Swelter’d venom sleeping got,
Boil thou first i’ the charmed pot.

ALL
Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.

Second Witch
Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the cauldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt and toe of frog,
Wool of bat and tongue of dog,
Adder’s fork and blind-worm’s sting,
Lizard’s leg and owlet’s wing,
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.

ALL
Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn and cauldron bubble.

Third Witch
Scale of dragon, tooth of wolf,
Witches’ mummy, maw and gulf
Of the ravin’d salt-sea shark,
Root of hemlock digg’d i’ the dark,
Liver of blaspheming Jew,
Gall of goat, and slips of yew
Silver’d in the moon’s eclipse,
Nose of Turk and Tartar’s lips,
Finger of birth-strangled babe
Ditch-deliver’d by a drab,
Make the gruel thick and slab:
Add thereto a tiger’s chaudron,
For the ingredients of our cauldron.

ALL
Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn and cauldron bubble.

Second Witch
Cool it with a baboon’s blood,
Then the charm is firm and good.

Enter HECATE

Hecate
O well done! I commend your pains;
And every one shall share i’ the gains;
And now about the cauldron sing,
Live elves and fairies in a ring,
Enchanting all that you put in.

HECATE retires

Second Witch
By the pricking of my thumbs,
Something wicked this way comes.
Open, locks,
Whoever knocks!

Enter MACBETH

Macbeth
How now, you secret, black, and midnight hags!
What is’t you do?

ALL
A deed without a name.

Macbeth
I conjure you, by that which you profess,
Howe’er you come to know it, answer me:
Though you untie the winds and let them fight
Against the churches; though the yesty waves
Confound and swallow navigation up;
Though bladed corn be lodged and trees blown down;
Though castles topple on their warders’ heads;
Though palaces and pyramids do slope
Their heads to their foundations; though the treasure
Of nature’s germens tumble all together,
Even till destruction sicken; answer me
To what I ask you.

If every new endeavour should have an auspicious beginning, what better way to start off a series of Shakespeare posts than with this powerful and incantatory scene? It’s always good to keep the forces of darkness appeased, after all.

Over the next week or so, Poi-tre will be featuring excerpts from the Bard’s plays (think of it as our own personal Highlights from Hamlet!). I apologise in advance for the ineptitude of some of the recordings (trust me, this stuff sounded SO much better in my head), but hopefully nothing can entirely blight the genius of Shakespeare’s work.

April 29, 2006 at 10:04 pm 8 comments

Bivouacked and Garrisoned Capitol

Dean Young

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Be assured.
April snow vanishes
like footprints of the immaculate
crushing the daffodils.
Be assured.
The advisors come out arm in arm
to declare their resolve into the flashbulbs,
the x-rays are put up on the screen,
the boxes are tied down in the back of the truck.
Because of the ash from the fires last year,
good zinfandels in the valley. Be assured.
The strategy of the moon is to match
its period of rotation to revolution
and thus preserve its dark side
which is strategy of many beautiful
and terrible things. The dream
confabulates, triangulates
our fears and desires until
the flood comes loose
in the baby-crying room, your fault
your fault, key to the lighthouse lost,
ten-foot gap. How can love survive?
Stifled laughter of waiters,
clutter of cloud, vast something
in the vaster nothing.
It is the strategy of life to provide
waking until death which generally
it hides until the last when interposes
a fly. Be assured, a brush is always poised
with its dab of scarlet. A pulse
at the fontanel, a fumarole, a veronica.
Agate, coral, grenadine,
alleys leading to the sea, a letter
read in a grove of apricot trees,
the woman nearly falls to her knees.
A man sews a button onto a shirt,
the sky kicks over its bucket of stars.
Be assured,
the crows are never out of focus,
the ice breaks into pills the river swallows.

One last Dean Young to end the contemporary poetry series with. This one is somewhat less accomplished, somewhat more uneven (much of his work is) but it still contains some beautiful lines.

Oh, in case you’re wondering Zinfandel is a Californian grape from which wine is made (I did not know that)

Starting tomorrow: Shakespeare.

April 28, 2006 at 7:34 pm 4 comments

Bathed in Dust and Ash

Dean Young

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Maybe Heraclitus was right, maybe
everything is fire. The lovers,
exhausted, unknot like slick ribbons,
the sirens fade to silver ash. Knock
at the door, no one there, voices

coming through the floor, spring
all morning, winter by afternoon,
dense rhymes of foliate argument,
laughter from passing cars. Fire
swallowed and regurgitated from which

all life comes, bees returning
to their hives to dance, hawks feeding
their gaping chicks, variables
in alternate currents you almost
lived, if you had married him,

if you had stayed, a future begun
as marks on a nearly transparent page.
So the shadows vanish and return
carrying their young in their jaws,
and the man who still thinks he’s a man

and not a column of smoke, sits
in his idling car, and the woman
who still thinks she’s a woman and not
climbing a staircase in flames,
bites her lips before she speaks.

The poet I think should have won the Pulitzer this year was Dean Young. I first came across Young’s poetry three months ago, when a poem of his called ‘Static City’ showed up on the back cover of the American Poetry Review. The only other thing by him I’ve read is the collection that was shortlisted for the Pulitzer – elegy on toy piano – and it’s a truly delightful book. Young is the true heir of Corso, a sort of erudite beat poet, Bukowski with a PhD. His poems are whimsical and intense and witty and irreverent and endlessly experimental and laced every now and then with some searing image or heartbreaking line, like the biting taste of neat vodka in a strawberry daiquiri. The poems I’ve picked to post here (there’s another one coming up tomorrow) are the more serious ones (I don’t trust myself to do justice to the humour in his more playful work) but this is a collection of poems you want to get your hands on.

I really like this poem because of the way it develops that first opening statement, the skill with which that first paragraph is pulled off, the thrill of lines like “the shadows vanish and return / carrying their young in their jaws” and that lovely final stanza, that brings us so neatly back to the central conceit of the poem, and creates so indelible an image in my head.

April 27, 2006 at 7:19 pm Leave a comment

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