Posts filed under ‘William Shakespeare’
Shall I compare thee to a Summers day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough windes do shake the darling buds of Maie,
And Sommers lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm’d,
And every faire from faire some-time declines,
By chance, or natures changing course untrim’d:
But thy eternal Sommer shall not fade,
Nor loose possession of that faire thou ow’st,
Nor shall death brag thou wandr’st in his shade,
When in eternall lines to time thou grow’st,
So long as men can breath or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
So it’s Valentine’s Day, and Shakespearan sonnets seem called for. And what better reading of it than this version doing the rounds in Peter O’Toole’s glorious voice.
The thing I really love about Shakespeare though, is the way his words lend themselves so magically to a variety of interpretations, so that with every reading of the text you discover new meanings, see how the whole thing could be played differently. This effect is strongest in the plays, of course, but it plays out even in his poems, where startlingly different versions can all sound compelling and true. It’s this malleability of Shakespeare that I love, the changing flavour of his words in your mouth as you chew on them, twisting them this way and that.
So I thought we’d try something different with this one. Up above are four different readings of the same sonnet (all unfortunately, by me – how I wish I could have convinced O’Toole to participate). Just for the heck of it.
Note: The text above is taken from the 1956 edition of The Penguin Book of English Verse.
When my love swears that she is made of truth
I do believe her, though I know she lies,
That she might think me some untutor'd youth,
Unlearned in the world's false subtleties.
Thus vainly thinking that she thinks me young,
Although she knows my days are past the best,
Simply I credit her false speaking tongue:
On both sides thus is simple truth suppress'd.
But wherefore says she not she is unjust?
And wherefore say not I that I am old?
O, love's best habit is in seeming trust,
And age in love loves not to have years told:
Therefore I lie with her and she with me,
And in our faults by lies we flatter'd be.
Ok. Simple premise. The dark mistress and Will here have a neat deal going. A deal based on mutual flattery and unadulterated lust. They lie to and lie with each other. Straightforward punning and a fun poem.
If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber’d here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend:
if you pardon, we will mend:
And, as I am an honest Puck,
If we have unearned luck
Now to ‘scape the serpent’s tongue,
We will make amends ere long;
Else the Puck a liar call;
So, good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends.
When I was first casting around for a blog name, my final list of candidates came down to Falstaff and Robin Goodfellow. I picked Falstaff because it was less of a mouthful and because on the whole I like Plump Jack more, but as favourite Shakespeare characters go, Puck comes in a close second. There’s something so soaring and weightless about Puck, something playful and leaping and entirely magical.
Of all the epilogues Shakespeare ever wrote, this one is probably my favourite. So it’s fitting that two weeks of Shakespeare posts should be brought to a close with Puck’s words. Other Shakespeare pieces will follow, no doubt (some have already been promised) but the exclusive focus on Shakespeare, this ‘weak and idle theme’ ends here.
(Henry IV Part 1 Act V Scene 1)
Why, thou owest God a death.
Exit PRINCE HENRY
‘Tis not due yet; I would be loath to pay him before
his day. What need I be so forward with him that
calls not on me? Well, ’tis no matter; honour pricks
me on. Yea, but how if honour prick me off when I
come on? how then? Can honour set to a leg? no: or
an arm? no: or take away the grief of a wound? no.
Honour hath no skill in surgery, then? no. What is
honour? a word. What is in that word honour? what
is that honour? air. A trim reckoning! Who hath it?
he that died o’ Wednesday. Doth he feel it? no.
Doth he hear it? no. ‘Tis insensible, then. Yea,
to the dead. But will it not live with the living?
no. Why? detraction will not suffer it. Therefore
I’ll none of it. Honour is a mere scutcheon: and so
ends my catechism.
I couldn’t resist this one. This is an amazing speech – a direct and mocking attack of everything that could be considered heroic or honourable, a speech against every war-monger, terrorist and martyr, against anyone who would kill and die for honour.
To bait fish withal: if it will feed nothing else,
it will feed my revenge. He hath disgraced me, and
hindered me half a million; laughed at my losses,
mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my
bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine
enemies; and what’s his reason? I am a Jew. Hath
not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs,
dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with
the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject
to the same diseases, healed by the same means,
warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as
a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed?
if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison
us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not
revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will
resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian,
what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian
wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by
Christian example? Why, revenge. The villany you
teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I
will better the instruction.
A guest post from Mystery Cat. He writes, “Portia’s speech got me thinking about Merchant of Venice. In spite of fond memories of elocution contests in school, it’s not a play I was never very fond of. I never bought into the anit-Semitic theory butI found Shylock to be an unreasonably vindictive villain, something of a caricature. So it’s kind of sad that his mildly incoherent defence of vengeance doesn’t seem terribly unfamiliar today.”
The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown;
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That, in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy. I have spoke thus much
To mitigate the justice of thy plea;
Which if thou follow, this strict court of Venice
Must needs give sentence ‘gainst the merchant there.
The Merchant of Venice, (and so, Portia’s Quality of Mercy). And commentary from the minstrels.
(Henry IV Act II Scene 4)
Well, here I am set.
And here I stand: judge, my masters.
Now, Harry, whence come you?
My noble lord, from Eastcheap.
The complaints I hear of thee are grievous.
‘Sblood, my lord, they are false: nay, I’ll tickle
ye for a young prince, i’ faith.
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?
I would your grace would take me with you: whom
means your grace?
That villanous abominable misleader of youth,
Falstaff, that old white-bearded Satan.
My lord, the man I know.
I know thou dost.
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.