Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Satire in the English Renaissance Pastoral

Pastoral literature from the English Renaissance may remind today's reader more of fairy tales and fables than pieces of great literature. Examples from this period could be relegated to the world of kitsch alongside porcelain shepherd and shepherdess salt and pepper shakers or the mediocre oil paintings of impossibly idealized bucolic country sides, second cousins to oil-on-velvet paintings of sad clowns and Elvis Presley. At first glance, the pastoral's ruffle-clad shepherdesses and pan-flute-playing shepherds generally fail to garner much literary respect or stir much interest; however, "first glance" may not be a worthy inspection of this particular genre. These seemingly quaint fables may not be what they first seem; the very fact that pastorals occupied some of the greatest poetic minds of the English Renaissance could imply the form at one time spoke to something deeper and more substantial than a pan flute, courtly shepherd, or velvet Elvis ever could.

The English Renaissance pastoral might be better understood within the context of rich literary traditions that preceded it since, in the real world, a literary genre never springs forth fully developed like Venus in the half shell. The development of a literary genre requires the complex process of evolution, with each step in that evolution entirely dependent upon what has come before. To remove a genre such as English Renaissance Pastoral from its place within the context of history compromises our ability to understand that genre and its manifestation at any particular stage of its development.

Current literary scholarship routinely attaches the English Renaissance pastoral to its ancient roots, a rebirth of the genre brought about by the influential Renaissance humanism movement. One central feature of the Renaissance humanism movement was a commitment to study the primary sources of the best writing from ancient Greece and Rome. This commitment was summarized in the Renaissance humanists' motto "ad fontes," which means "to the sources." Renaissance humanists glorified the ancient civilizations and sought to both imitate and reincarnate the ideals of ancient literature. With this commitment, Renaissance Pastoral emerged as a direct descendant of works by the Greek writer Theocritus, who may have, in turn, drawn on authentic folk traditions of Sicilian shepherds.

Theocritus' bucolic poetry represented the life of Sicilian shepherds living in an idealized natural setting reminiscent of the Golden age of Greek mythology, the highest in the Greek spectrum of Iron, Bronze, Silver, and Golden ages.  Theocritus' shepherds lived in a time of peace and stability.  He wrote in the Doric dialect but in dactylic hexameter, which had previously been associated with the Greek's most prestigious poetic form, epic poetry.  This melding of simplicity and sophistication would later play a major role in the history of pastoral verse in the hands of Renaissance writers.  The devices of these early pastorals were later adopted by the Roman poet Virgil, who adapted the genre into Latin with his Eclogues.

Virgil wrote about a more idyllic vision of rural life than Theocritus had done and was the first to set his poems in Arcadia.  Arcadia, although an actual location, became highly idealized within the realms of literature and developed into the most popular location for ancient pastorals.  Virgil presented a rural life more idyllic than what Theocritus had given; a distinction which gave the pastoral a foothold in the world of fantasy and opened the door to the use of allegory.  He implemented the practice of exploiting the pastoral form to make clandestine insinuations about contemporary problems. Virgil's Eclogues contained a blend of visionary politics and eroticism, and his work was met with popular success in the Roman theatre, catapulting Virgil into fame and establishing him as a celebrity and a legend among his contemporaries.

In its simplest form, a pastoral represents a shepherd's life in a conventionalized manner.  However, the Renaissance pastoral model was more involved than that.  Its features included:
  1. A fantastical world where the constraints of geography, nature, gender and time may become irrelevant and subverted.
  2. Exiles from urban life who are outsiders from the Pastoral situation form the focus of the Pastoral Romance. Shepherds are not the primary focus.
  3. When the exiles arrive in the countryside, they converse with the shepherds.
  4. The urban characters often disguise themselves as country folk or shepherds.
  5. Advantages and disadvantages of court and country are discussed; differences between the natural and the artificial are fundamental to the genre.
  6. Pastoral Romances include songs, masques and disguises.
  7. The Pastoral Romance celebrates rural simplicity, but in a highly stylized and artificial manner.
  8. Discussion and examination between the concepts of nature and nurture are present throughout the Pastoral genre.
  9. Pastoral figures are used to examine the evils of greed, cruelty, deceit, corruption and bribery through actions or discourse.
  10. By the culmination of the play, the exiles are reintegrated into the urban life and order has been restored.
  11. By providing an artificial realm through the imaginary forest and Shepherds, the Pastoral Romance provides its characters with an opportunity to see more clearly and therefore gives them the opportunity and freedom to change.
William Shakespeare made frequent use of the Pastoral, both through brief examples within works such as Love's Labor's Lost ("When icicles hang by the wall") and the Shearer's feast in The Winter's Tale or sustained examples like the play As You Like It.  Other plays by Shakespeare contain individual pastoral scenes, such as the bandits in The Two Gentlemen of Verona.  The Pastoral influence is also found within A Midsummer's Nights Dream and The Tempest.

Shakespeare drew from classic pastoral literature for the subject matter in As You Like It, specifically Lodge's pastoral romance, Rosalynde.  Lodge's 1590 novel had adapted "The Tale of Gamelyn," a narrative poem from the 14th Century.  Shakespeare's version gave characters greater depth than Lodge; he introduced humor into the story, and created new characters such as Jacques, Touchstone, William and Audrey.

The play's Phebe and Silvius appeared in Lodge's novel, but are stock pastoral figures as well.  Within the classical pastoral, conventional shepherds and shepherdesses had occurred in pairs with names like Phoebe and Silvius or the alternate Phoebus and Silvia.  In these traditional roles, the shepherd is lovelorn while the shepherdess is disdainful.  The lovelorn shepherd laments the loss or disdain of his lady, either in solo lyric or eclogue (a dialogue between shepherds about the simple life).  In As You Like It, Silvius complains to Corin about his love's rejection and the lovelorn Orlando hangs lyrics about his own love from all the tree branches.  Again true to the classic pastoral form, Phebe supplies the customary elegy for a dead shepherd by quoting Marlowe:
Dead shepherd, now I find thy saw of might,
"Who ever lov'd that lov'd not at first sight?"
As may be expected, Shakespeare was not content to merely use the Pastoral in his works but his contribution further developed the genre.  As You Like It utilizes many of the thematic and dramatic requirements of the Pastoral:
  1. Corruption of family and court forces several characters into exile and the Forest of Arden, thereby creating a platform where questions of nature, nurture and nobility may be raised.
  2. Cross-gender disguise is employed and allows Rosalind to freely discuss love and relationships with Orlando.
  3. As You Like It contains more songs than any of Shakespeare's other plays.
  4. The play features a wedding masque with the god of marriage, Hymen. Supernatural elements were important to the Pastoral genre.
  5. Social (and gender) order is restored at the end. Duke Senior resumes his place at Court and the brothers Orlando and Oliver reunite. Rosalind casts off her male alter-ego (Ganymede) as well as the freedom of speech which accompanied that role.
For all its merit as an example of the Pastoral genre, the interpretation of As You Like It is not without problems.  While some scholars have rated the play among Shakespeare's best, others do not see it as an equal within the Shakespearean canon.  Critic such as Samuel Johnson and George Bernard Shaw did not believe As You Like It was a good example of Shakespeare's high artistry. Several scenes in As You Like It are essentially skits made up of songs and joking banter.  Accenting the "You" in the title, Shaw theorized the play may have been written as a mere crowd pleaser, but one which did not particularly please Shaw.  Even Leo Tolstoy remarked about the characters' immorality and took issue with Touchstone's constant clowning.  On the other hand, American literary critic Harold Bloom believed Rosalind was one of Shakespeare's greatest and most fully realized female characters.

As You Like It, although neglected in performance for more than a century after Shakespeare's death in 1616, has been a popular play on the stage ever since.  It was revived in England for the first time in 1723 in an adaptation called Love in a Forest.  This version of the play interpolated passages from other Shakespearean dramas and comedies, notably A Midsummer Night's Dream.  Shakespeare's original was restored to the theater seventeen years later.  In the 19th century As You Like It was staged by a number of eminent English actor-managers including Charles Kean and William Charles Macready.  In late nineteenth century America, especially, the play became a favorite with audiences.  Rosalind found noteworthy interpreters in Helena Modjeska, Mary Anderson, Ada Rehan, and Julia Marlowe.

But perhaps Shaw's observation about the play's title does provide insight and Shakespeare's play is a commentary on the theatrical tastes of Elizabethan England.  For all its Pastoral elements As You Like It does not strictly adhere to conventions of the genre, but in fact appears to satirize them.  The Forest of Arden is a place where Dukes have been usurped, brothers are deadly enemies, starvation, lions and deadly snakes lurk.  For all the idyllic Pastoral qualities, Arden marries fantasy with a harsh reality.  As a departure from the pastoral form, in As You Like It Shakespeare tempers the idyll of the sweetly picturesque pastoral scene with the adversity of the malcontented Jacques, as well as the unlikely pairing of Touchstone and Audrey, ensuring neither court life nor pastoral idyll is presented as either too sweet or too adverse.  The play provides opportunities for its main characters to discuss love, aging, the natural world, and death from their particular points of view.  It presents us with the worldviews of a chronically melancholy pessimist preoccupied with the negative aspects of life (Jacques), and Rosalind, who recognizes life's difficulties but holds fast to a positive attitude that is kind, playful, and above all, wise.  Whatever Shakespeare's intent may have been for As You Like It, its composition does mark a turning point in his output as a playwright since; Shakespeare abandoned comedy soon after its completion and turned to the composition of his major tragedies.

So although current scholarship routinely attaches Renaissance Pastoral Literature to its ancient roots, and these connections are certainly valid, they stop short of realizing the influence of literature between the classical period and the European Renaissance. While it is evident Virgil introduced political allegory into his tales, this might not directly explain all the the techniques employed by Renaissance writers. To understand the English Renaissance pastoral it seems important to attach this genre to the body of literature immediately preceding it. Without this important link in the genre's evolution, we are apt to overlook its most important influences, and our interpretation of works within this genre will not reflect their possible deeper meanings and purposes.

Before the pastoral gained widespread popularity, satire had already been established as a staple of Medieval English Literature. If we give Renaissance Pastoral its proper place in the history and evolution of literature, the genre may seem less an enigma, relegated to that world of kitsch, and more a continuation of the rich satirical tradition of Medieval and Early Renaissance writers such as Geoffrey Chaucer, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra and Thomas More. Ignoring the satire's popularity in Medieval and Early Renaissance Europe may cause us to forget how the stage had been set when the pastoral rose to popularity in the 16th century. When viewed as a continuation of the satirical tradition, Renaissance Pastoral may be greater appreciated, and its sense of wit, style, and daring may come into clearer focus.

Satirical poetry is believed to have been popular in Chaucer's time although little has survived.  Examples of such poetry may still be seen in the bawdy lyrics of Carmina Burnana, set to music by Carl Orf in the 20th Century.  The Canterbury Tales served as Chaucer's platform to satire the blind religion and thoughtless bigotry of his day.

Chaucer created "The Prioress' Tale" to satire the blind religion and thoughtless bigotry of his day.  Chaucer lived in a time when religious stories thrived among a largely illiterate population.  These stories were Saint's tales where the villains were impossibly bad and the heroes impossibly good.  The line between "good" and "bad" people was drawn by their religious beliefs; anyone who believed in the Christian church was good, and everyone else in the world was bad.

Knowing nothing else of him, we can deduce from the rest of The Canterbury Tales that Chaucer is a talented writer, skilled in both subtlety of character and storytelling. So why would his Prioress tell a story so obviously shallow, improbable, and bigoted unless Chaucer labored behind some hidden agenda? Judging from his other stories, Chaucer doesn't seem squeamish about poking fun at hypocrisy in religion; he points to gullibility in religious devotion through "The Miller's Tale" as well as through those who purchase the Pardoner's "relics" in "The Pardoner's Tale."  Further, history tells us Chaucer was part of a group of intellectuals who opposed the prevalent anti-Semitism of his time; in reality he would have been against characterizing Jews as "Satan's Hornet Nest".

Thomas More criticized the religious and political views of his contemporaries by obscuring his true intentions through the use of satire in Utopia (1516). Modern readers have come to understand a "utopia" as a paradise, a world built on higher ideals where the lamb lays down with the lion.  As such, it would be natural to assume that in this book More had explained his designs for a more perfect world, with his own religious, political, and moral beliefs fulfilled.  But in fact, the word "utopia" (which was coined by More himself from Latin) would be literally translated as "no place".  By calling his dreamland "Utopia" More is betraying his story, showing it is a made up tale; he is literally calling it a place which does not and presumably cannot, exist.  He further betrays his true view by the names he assigns to various characters and places within the story.

Thomas More wrote Utopia as a satire on his contemporaries' religious and political thoughts.  The positive light given to religious, political and philosophical ideas diametrically opposed to those of the author, the presence of ridiculous wordplay in the names, titles and locations within the piece, and the pseudo Renaissance-humanist air given by setting the work in Latin, all reveal More's satiric intent.

The implied benefits of divorce, euthanasia, married priests, and women priests, expressed in Utopia, disagreed with More's celebrated dedication to devout Catholicism. More was a persecutor of heretics (Protestants) yet the book extolled the virtues of embracing varied religions, and even under the same roof.  The piece engaged in political criticism, but More himself was Lord Chancellor, an influential English lawyer.  Communism and the idea of communal living expressed as an ideal in Utopia could be seen as the opposite view expected from a rich landowner such as More.

Because Renaissance humanist movement, which glorified the ancient civilizations, had already established an influence during his time it seems possible More could have been tipping his hat to them by setting his work in Latin and telling of an ancient idyllic civilization built on "superior" ideals. If this was More's intent, and if the tale of a perfect communal society was a reference to New World legend (although in reality Amerigo Vespucci's Incas practiced cannibalism), then this would be further proof that More viewed Utopia to be seen as a satirical work.

In Arte of English Poesie, George Puttenham argues the pastoral is a literary form especially designed:
Not of purpose to counterfait or represent the rusticall manner of loves and communication: but under the vaile of homely persons, and in rude speeches to insinuate and glaunce at greater matters, and such as perchance had not bene safe to have beene disclosed in any other sort.
In The Making of a Poem, Strand and Boland note how the pastoral spoke to poets of the Renaissance period and their "deep European unease about power, urbanization, and the demands made for a new centralization," citing the pastoral as "one of the true intellectual engines of [Elizabethan] poetry".

First in Latin with the work of Petrarch, Pontano, and Mantuan, and then in Italian vernacular with the works of Boiardo, Italian poets led the way in a 14th Century revival of pastoral form.  The pastoral became fashionable throughout Renaissance Europe.  Because of the satire's popularity in England during Medieval and Early Renaissance times the pastoral's appearance there may have simply represented a new incarnation of the satire.  In 1579 Virgil's Eclogues inspired Edmund Spenser's The Shepheardes Calendar (a series of twelve eclogues, one for each calendar month) and ushered the pastoral form further into fashion, but Spenser's creation was more than just a collection of colloquialisms.  A study by Robert Lane interprets The Shepheardes Calendar as criticism of the Elizabethan hierarchy and how society exploited and neglected society's underprivileged.  According to Lane, The Shepheardes Calendar undermines the courtly role assigned to Elizabethan poetry and capitalized on such pop culture mainstays as woodcuts, proverbs, fables and the calendar format to further drive its point home.

Understanding the connection between the English Renaissance pastoral and the satirical literature which preceded it, it is easier to see how William Shakespeare used the pastoral form to explore the realms of political and social commentary.  Shakespeare frequently exploited poetic form and theatrical convention to provide a vehicle for his legendary wit, so it may be safe to assume his use of the pastoral was also intended to "glaunce at greater matters".  He made frequent use of the pastoral both through brief examples within plays and as the framework for complete works, riding on the shoulders of the public's love for satire, to transport the pastoral into the world of social and political commentary.

The main plot of Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale is derived, somewhat more loyally than Shakespeare is usually inclined, from Robert Greene's pastoral romance Pandosto (1590). Perhaps the most apparent pastoral element of the play is how pastoral life in Bohemia offers a sharp contrast to the world of the Sicilian court. Although the idealized character Perdita may be the primary spokesperson of the pastoral world and its values, Shakespeare does not romanticize the play's pastoral world itself. As a matter of fact the typical pastoral vision is undercut by sadness and ambivalence throughout the length of the play.

Historian Eric Ives has argued the play is actually a parody of Queen Anne Boleyn's fall, the wife of Henry VIII who was beheaded in 1536 for charges of adultery.  Ives states numerous parallels exist between the two stories, including how Sir Henry Norreys, a close friend of Henry, was beheaded as a supposed lover of Anne, refusing to confess to save his life on the grounds that everyone knew of the Queen's innocence.  Following this theory about the play, Perdita could represent Anne's only daughter, Queen Elizabeth I.  An understanding of the play in this light further strengthens the connection Shakespeare made between the pastoral and satire.

His poem "When icicles hang by the wall" from the play Love's Labor's Lost may at first glance appear quaint.  In this piece the country folk go about their daily work, subjected to the harsh and cold winter.  They carry firewood into the hall, watch the sheep, milk the cows, all the while dealing with the bitter cold.  But the owl represents more than a common bird; Shakespeare's owl represents the wealthy of society who watch over the poor, oblivious of the plight and singing a "merry note".

It is no stretch to assume Shakespeare's owl played an allegorical role in this pastoral.  Shakespeare frequently used the owl for similar purposes. As Lady Macbeth prepares to murder the king she is startled by the shriek of an owl:
Hark! - Peace!
It was the owl that shriek'd, the fatal bellman
Which gives the stern'st good-night. [Macbeth - II, 2]
Prior to the assassination of Julius Caesar an owl was reported:
The bird of night did sit,
Even at noon-day, upon the market-place
Hooting and shrieking. [Julius Caesar - I, 3]
Further, Puck says of the owl:
Now the wasted brands do glow,
Whilst the screech-owl, screeching loud,Puts the wretch that lies in woe
In remembrance of a shroud. (A Midsummer Night's Dream - V, 1)
Since Shakespeare often associated the owl with death, its use here may very likely represent the pending death of such rustics as cataloged within the poem.  Also noteworthy is the owl's disregard for their situations throughout this poem, singing his merry song in spite of their toil. Given the possible satirical heritage of the Renaissance pastorals, the owl could easily represent the wealthy officials who go about their merry way oblivious of the common man's trials.

Understanding the connection between the English Renaissance pastoral and the satire, the interpretation of Shakespeare's As You Like It becomes less problematic.  In the Arden Shakespeare edition, As You Like It is represented as a multi-layered chronicle of late English Renaissance culture and of all the various social and political conflicts marking the final decade of the sixteenth century.  Dusinberre outlines how the play functions to "glaunce at greater matters".  She cites Jaques's indebtedness to the period's vogue for satire and the faction-ridden politics occasioned by the Earl of Essex's career and his rivalry with Sir Robert Cecil. In the Arden Shakespeare edition of Shakespeare's pastoral play As You Like It, editor Juliet Dusinberre comments:
Social and political realities would not have been far from the minds of its first audiences in 1599, whether at court or in the public theatre.  Beneath an impeccably sunny surface 'As You Like It' touches on troubled territories.
The work of other Renaissance writers such as poet and playwright Christopher Marlowe may also be understood when a connection is made between the English Renaissance pastoral and its satirical heritage.  Marlowe made the pastoral his own by introducing exaggerated imagery and sexuality to the form.  Shepherds in the pastorals of Theocritus and Virgil had expressed love as a deep longing without sexuality, but in his pastoral poem "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love" Marlowe's shepherd asks a woman to share an idealized romantic relationship.  However, the shepherd's proposal is actually more ridiculous than idyllic, possibly indicating Marlowe's intent to satirize the traditional pastoral form.  The shepherd offers his love:
Fair-lined slippers for the cold,
With buckles of the purest gold . . .
While a pretty promise, these and other claims in this poem are far from anything an actual shepherd could afford to bestow upon anyone.

The poems of Sir Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard had previously utilized the country life as a refuge for rejected suitors, but Marlowe's shepherd is not concerned about rejection or whether his social or financial status is acceptable to the girl; his only concern is the desire for immediate pleasure:
And if these pleasures may thee move,
Come live with me and be my Love.
Today's America lives in little or no fear for ridiculing the government or speaking out against "progress". But the pastoral provided those less fortunate a venue to play with questions "which verged on a philosophical subversion of traditional religious themes in poetry" (Strand and Boland, 208). The works of Renaissance writers like Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare provide compelling evidence pastoral literature of that period was often used as a vehicle for political and social commentary, and this intent becomes more clear when the satirical elements of these works' lineage are not overlooked; following in the shadows of the popularity of such well-loved writers as Geoffrey Chaucer, Thomas More, and Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, the pastoral would naturally have received a satirical interpretation by Renaissance readers and audiences. With this in mind, and although the references may likely be obscured with the passing of time, interpretation of the pastoral poem enters a new realm of understanding; instead of relegating these pieces to the world of kitsch and quaint, we may now be compelled to dig below the surface, blowing away the dust to uncover a treasure, and in doing so are likely to at least appreciate, if not enjoy, the wit of the pastoral form's most famous practitioners.

Works cited.

Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales. New York: Penquin Classics, 2003. Print.

Moore, R..  "As You Like It: Introduction." eNotes: As You Like It. Ed. Penny Satoris. Seattle: Enotes.com Inc, October 2002. eNotes.com. 24 June 2009. Print.
More, Thomas. Utopia. New York: Penquin Classics, 2003. Print.

"Pastoral in Shakespeare's Works: Introduction." Shakespearean Criticism. Ed. Michelle Lee. Vol. 89. Gale Cengage, 2005. eNotes.com. 2006. 24 Jan, 2009. Web.

Shakespeare, William. The Arden Shakespeare As You Like It. Edited by Juliet Dusinberre. London: Thomson Learning, 2006. Print.

"Shepheards Devises: Edmund Spenser's 'Shepheardes Calendar' and the Institutions of Elizabethan Society." Renaissance Society of America, 1995. The Free Library. 2006. 24 Jan, 2009 . Print.

Strand, Mark, and Eavan Boland. The Making of a Poem. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2001. Print.

"The Passionate Shepherd to His Love: Introduction." Poetry for Students. Ed. Marie Rose Napierkowski. Vol. 0. Detroit: Gale, 1998. eNotes.com. January 2006. 31 January 2009. Web.

"The Passionate Shepherd to His Love (Style)." Notes on Poetry. Answers Corporation, 2006. Answers.com 01 Feb. 2009. Web.

"The Winter's Tale: Pastoral Elements." Shakespeare for Students. Ed. Marie Rose Napierkowski. Vol. 1. Detroit: Gale, 1998. eNotes.com. January 2006. 30 June 2009. Web.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Cinematic Narration and Shakespeare's Plays

Many of the limitations William Shakespeare faced in the technical facilities of the Elizabethan stage are answered in the nature and abilities of modern film. Where Shakespeare seemed to yearn for a way to express the true colors of his vision through words, film offers a ready palette and the ability to "show" what Shakespeare could only "tell." Shakespeare's theater, with its lack of technical resources, painted verbal pictures of battlefields and fantastical places, scenes and exchanges in a span of places from the underworld to the heavens, and snapshots of a character's inner thoughts and feelings, entirely through words. By its nature and technical abilities film has a broader visual vocabulary available to it than Shakespeare's theater could ever access.

In Henry V the chorus laments the limitations of Shakespeare's Elizabethan stage:
. . . Can this cock-pit hold
The vasty fields of France? Or may we cram,
Within this wooden O, the very casques,
That did affright the air at Agincourt?
O, pardon! Since a crooked figure may
Attest, in little place, a million;
And let us, ciphers to this great accompt,
On your imaginary forces work.
In director and actor Kenneth Branagh's 1989 film adaptation of Henry V, which earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Director, preeminent British classical actor of the first post-Olivier generation, Derek Jacobi, spoke these words of the chorus' prologue from the backstage of a modern theater. Jacobi's speech ended on the stage, where the play's opening scene is expected to begin. However the battle scene that follows is not in fact filmed on a stage, but on a 15th Century battlefield. By filming the opening sequence in this manner, Branagh both acknowledges and shatters the limitations Shakespeare faced on his Elizabethan stage, and opens a door for the cinematic narrator to offer its unique and virtually unlimited contribution to the production.

In a similar manner, Branagh's 2006 adaptation of Shakespeare's As You Like It takes us behind the scenes of its actual filming when Rosalind (played by Bryce Dallas Howard) delivers the play's epilogue among the actors' trailers and the general hubbub of the crew. Film's ability to break the fourth wall opens new realms for the cinematic narrator, bringing an intimacy between actor, filmmaker, and audience which Shakespeare could only experience in his dreams. This intimacy introduces the other end of a spectrum available to the cinematic narrator, ranging from spectacle to minute detail, and outlines its possible contribution to the filming of Shakespeare's plays.

But the modern cinematic narrator's contribution to the filming of Shakespeare's plays is not merely technical. The cinematic voice is the product of its own day and age just as much as the voice of Shakespeare. In "Shakespeare and the Cinema," Russell Jackson, Professor of Shakespeare Studies at the University of Birmingham and Director of the Shakespeare Institute, Stratford-upon-Avon, observes:
To an extent, the history of Shakespearian film-making is one of variations on this theme: shifting attitudes to the Shakespearian source material, varied objectives, and changing techniques.
So the adaptation of Shakespeare to film serves the needs of both play and filmmaker, and the cinematic narration developed for each individual film will be dictated by the attitudes, objectives and techniques applied to the material.

The Shakespearean canon offers a nearly comprehensive palette of human emotion and experience with ready-made scenarios to match each filmmaker's objective. However, public opinion about the individual plays continues to change. The play As You Like It, although neglected in performance for more than a century after Shakespeare's death in 1616, has been a popular play on the stage ever since. Although The Taming of the Shrew remains one of Shakespeare's most frequently performed comedies, interpretation of the play's commentary about women changes with the times. While few would dispute the numerous merits of The Merchant of Venice, its anti-Semitic themes have caused the work to fall out of fashion at times when these themes could not be readily justified. Attitudes about Shakespeare himself continue to change throughout the years; while he is often hailed as a great genius who has made numerous contributions to the English language as well as our overall understanding of humanity and the individual, at other times even his existence has been called into question and William Shakespeare has been thought to be the compiled penname for several writers of the Elizabethan stage.

In an interview for his 2006 film adaptation of As You Like It, director Kenneth Branagh spoke of his objectives for filming Shakespeare:
I felt as though I was watching Shakespeare across the generations and in a new medium - - sort of waving the flag and saying, We're not telling you this is better than anything you'll ever see but we think it's wonderful.
By nature of its creative flexibility, film opens the door to radical objectives and the use of distinctive narrative voices. Director Baz Luhrmann's 1996 adaptation of Romeo and Juliet sought to update the play with a radical approach intended to appeal to a broad audience. However, it may be argued this adaptation pales in comparison to Franco Zeffirelli's unforgettable 1968 film, which handled the material in a more traditional manner and is now considered a film classic. Addressing this capacity of film, and perhaps implying some restraint should be exercised in its use, Kenneth Branagh said:
When you make a film of a subject that existed in another medium - particularly in the theatre, where it's worked as a play for four hundred years - I think one is obliged to consider what the cinema can do to reveal the story of the play that the theatre can't do in the same way. I'm not suggesting one is better than the other, but simply, what can the medium do? Why do it in the cinema?
While the quality and influence of Shakespeare's plays may be a common reason they are adapted into film, these works have also been used as vehicles for promoting and preserving the work of individual actors. Sir Laurence Olivier's film performances of Shakespeare, which include King Lear (1983), Henry V (1944), Hamlet (1948), As You Like It (1936), Richard III (1955), and The Merchant of Venice (1973) are currently valued more for their preservation of work by such a legendary actor than their other cinematic merits.

It could be said Shakespeare's plays lend themselves to screen adaptation more readily than scripts from modern theater. A modern play frequently must be "opened up" so the visual narrative of film may be more fully applied, even though this process of opening is likely to superimpose new ideas onto the original play. Where modern theater seems to have been influenced by cinema and television, presenting dialogue virtually void of descriptive language, the plays of William Shakespeare give us language rich in narrative. With Shakespeare's plays the material for cinematic narration is often readily available in the existing text and may simply be translated into an artistic and effective visual representation. Coupled with modern cinema's technical capacities, the wealth of description present in much of Shakespeare's work may be more fully appreciated and realized than could ever have been possible on the Elizabethan stage.

But for all the literary and descriptive quality of Shakespeare's plays, they may be more effective as film when careful consideration is given to the development of an appropriate cinematic narrator and that narrator is given a clear voice in the film's execution. The plays have been filmed countless times and with varied amounts of cinematic intervention. On the one hand we have extreme makeovers such as the 1999 film Ten Things I Hate About You, based on Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew but set in a modern high school and rewritten in prose. Franco Zeffirelli's film version of Romeo and Juliet stayed much closer to the original, both the text and the setting. Both films can claim success on very different levels, but they share the benefit of a strong directorial vision translated into a distinctive style and use of cinematic narration. Russell Jackson said:
Films based on Shakespeare's plays are best considered in terms of their vision - that is, the imaginary world they create, and the way of seeing it that they offer the viewer rather than the degree of their faithfulness to a Shakespearean original.
One of the most obvious characteristics in any of Shakespeare's plays is his use of language, and in particular his use of blank verse. Actors on the Elizabethan stage did not enjoy the benefits of electronic amplification, so clarity was a major concern of any playwright when assigning words to an actor. Like other playwrights of his day, Shakespeare employed the use of iambic pentameter when constructing his lines. Iambic pentameter depends on an oral rhythm which approximates natural speech but almost magically makes it easier for an audience to hear and understand. Each line contains a series of alternating weak and strong stresses on its words. The combination of one weak and one strong syllable creates what is called a foot, and each line contains five such feet. Built upon iambic pentameter, blank verse was a helpful tool for the Elizabethan stage, but not an obvious one for modern film. Consequently, many filmmakers place little importance on their actors' use of these elements in the blank verse even though Shakespeare's use of iambic pentameter often carries instruction to the actors and hints about his intended meanings. A modern filmmaker may decide to ignore how and why Shakespeare used blank verse, but he does so at his own peril and his final interpretation of the work might suffer.

Antony's famous speech from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar is written in blank verse. In general, when a Shakespearean actor comes across a line which seems to have more or less than five feet, it is likely an adjustment should be made in pronunciation. For example, in Antony's speech, the word "ambitious" is pronounced with four syllables and not three like we generally use today. The word "interred" is meant to contain three syllables as well, indicated by the number of feet in the line. But if you allow the form to flow, without fighting the rhythms, not only is it easier to hear the lines, but you begin to hear Shakespeare's own acting directions, indicating which word is stressed and therefore important. Often the stresses in a line can change or at least clarify the meaning. The stress given to the word "ambitious" throughout the speech, both by the number of syllables and the frequency of repetition, is underscored by the rhythm. We see this is a speech about ambition, but not necessarily about the ambition of Caesar. Because it is stressed, and repeated, then followed by "Yet Brutus is an honorable man" we get the idea Antony might actually be saying Brutus was the ambitious one, and not Caesar.

Another obvious characteristic of Shakespeare's language is its descriptive qualities. Because the Elizabethan stage did not use more than the most minimal bits of scenery to depict location and time of day, playwrights alluded to such details through the dialogue. Dialogue was also used to describe events which might be difficult to depict on the stage, or to relay information which the characters on stage might not otherwise be privy to. Because film carries such a wide range of possibilities, anything from voiceovers and flashbacks to quick editing and the ability to bring any time or feeling into the scene, Shakespeare's allusions within the text, although they are often beautiful, may easily be handed off to the cinematic narrator's duties. What remains next is for the filmmaker to decide if this descriptive dialogue is necessary or if it becomes redundant when these things can be shown in other ways.

Aside from a lack of scenery, the Elizabethan stage's use of costuming was minimal as well and actors generally wore "modern dress" whether the play took place in Elizabethan England or ancient Rome. Modern film actors are usually dressed in costumes accurate to the story's time and culture, again reducing the need for descriptive language which identifies a play's locale. Modern filmmakers often stray from the setting Shakespeare intended for his plays, adding yet another discretionary element to the director's plate and another instance where the original language might best be cut. Director Michael Hoffman's 1999 film adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream changes the location from Greece to Italy and moves the time a few hundred years from its original era. Kenneth Branagh's As You Like It sets the tale in a British enclave of feudal Japan.

It is impossible to know how Shakespeare himself might approach the filming of his plays if he were alive today, of course. Freed from the constraints of his Elizabethan stage, we can only guess what the Bard of Avon might have given us. Perhaps he would have left out much of the descriptive sections within his plays, or maybe he would retain them for their poetic contributions. Of course Shakespeare would realize an almost unlimited palette of times and locations for his plays, but perhaps he would have rejected their importance and focused even more on the interactions between characters. Or perhaps Shakespeare would have transferred a portion of his writing from the pen to the camera, using each tool for its inherent strengths and understanding their weaknesses. What we do know is the cinematic narration in a modern film may be used to enhance what we already have in Shakespeare's plays, the only challenge comes in knowing where and how much of the focus to give that narrator.

Works cited.

Braudy, Leo and Marshall Cohen. "Film Narrative and the Other Arts." Film Theory & Criticism. Ed. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. 341-344.
Jackson, Russell. "Shakespeare and the Cinema." The Cambridge Companion To Shakespeare. Ed. Margreta de Grazia and Stanley Wells. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. 217-233.

"Lawrence Olivier." IMDb: The Internet Movie Database. IMDb.com, 1990-2009. 05 July, 2009. < http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000059/>

"Online Exclusive With Kenneth Branagh." HBO Films. HBO Films, 2006. 05 July, 2009. < http://www.hbo.com/films/asyoulikeit/interviews/>

Friday, June 17, 2011

The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Gilbert and Sullivan Characters

The bulk of Leone Cottrell-Adkins' opera troupe had been performing together for years, but opera was a new experience for the fledgling small-town community theatre who now hosted them, and for me. As an eighteen-year-old stage manager I was actually a little intimidated by the whole thing.

I had managed to sit through their production of Mozart's Cosi fan tutti, but the finale brought welcome relief. However, their production of the Gilbert and Sullivan mainstay operetta, The Mikado, was another story entirely. I had never been exposed to the sublime ridiculousness of G & S before then, but I melted each time the lead soprano sang The Moon and I and thrilled at each performance of the Act I finale. I laughed at all the little jokes interspersed through the dialogue, and even vaguely understood a bit of the social and political satire. If it weren't for herding around that chorus of ancient singers, the experience would have been a dream.

In fact, as I became more familiar with the Gilbert and Sullivan canon, a collection of little operatic satires that brought the musical theater to new heights of wit and sophistication, I noticed how these characters resonate within our individual and cultural psyches. They mirror our own aspirations, our own failures, and even our own successes.

I learned that these operas can teach us valuable lessons for leading happy, productive lives. If their libretti were collected in one volume, you might even call it The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Gilbert and Sullivan Characters.

Lesson 1: Synergy and the Three Little Maids From School


A friend once told me his grandmother's theory about little boys and mob mentality: "One boy is fine, but two boys is about like half a boy and three boys ain't no boy at all."

Synergy happens when the result is greater than the sum of it's parts, so I guess with little boys it's a case of synergy in reverse.

But on the other hand three little girls can be synergy personified. Just consider the three little maids in Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado. Individually, they are nothing more than little girls who just graduated from a ladies' seminary. But synergistically, these three little maids are a force to be reckoned with.

Jim Rohn said: "You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with."

It's true our associations help us decide what activities we'll engage in and they influence our general psychological outlook. But synergy happens when we step outside our everyday associations. It takes place through teams and at its essence requires us to embrace diversity.

Stephen Covey said: "Synergy is the highest activity of life; it creates new untapped alternatives; it values and exploits the mental, emotional, and psychological differences between people."

Granted, Gilbert and Sullivan's three little maids are a fairly homogeneous group. But at heart they are three unique individuals with their own needs, wants, and desires. Obviously something in their union touches our culture's corporate psyche.

And what can synergy accomplish? Perhaps the first little maid puts it best when she shares her true agenda:
I mean to rule the earth,
As he the sky--
We really know our worth,
The sun and I!

If not rulers of the earth, synergy has certainly allowed these three little maids to ascend to the status of cultural icon. Here are a few of the many nods pop culture has given this synergistic trio, courtesy of Wikipedia:
The song "Three Little Maids" is featured in the 1981 film Chariots of Fire, where Harold Abrahams first sees his future wife dressed as one of the Three Little Maids. Many television programmes have featured the song, including Frasier Crane and John Cleese in the Cheers episode "Simon Says" (for which Cleese won an Emmy Award), Frasier solo in the Frasier episode "Leapin' Lizards", the Angel episode "Hole in the World", The Simpsons episode "Cape Feare," Alvin and the Chipmunks episode "Maids in Japan",The Suite Life of Zack & Cody episode, "Lost In Translation," and The Animaniacs Vol. 1 episode "Hello Nice Warners". The Capitol Steps also performed a parody entitled "Three Little Kurds from School Are We" about conditions in Iraq. In the CSI: Crime Scene Investigation episode Suckers, a corrupt casino owner uses the notes from the first line ("Three little maids from school are we") to program the combination to the casino's safe.

Where can synergy take you?

Lesson 2: Strategic Planning and the Lord High Executioner


Flotsam and jetsam are interesting things. In general they're just debris that floats around in the ocean, but specifically they have two entirely different origins.

Jetsam is debris you'll find floating around in the ocean that was thrown overboard (jettisoned) by the crew of a ship, usually to lighten their load in an emergency. Flotsam is other stuff floating around in the sea that wasn't deliberately put there, like perhaps the remnants of a ship wreck.

But generally they're just topsy-turvy stuff floating around in the ocean.

Not that Sirs Gilbert or Sullivan would necessarily be classified as flotsam or jetsam, but a few of the characters they created might be. In particular Ko-Ko, the reluctant Lord High Executioner in The Mikado.

Ko-Ko describes his rapid (and involuntary) ascent from common tailor to political heights:
Taken from the county jail by a set of curious chances; liberated then on bail, on my own recognizances; wafted by a favoring gale as one sometimes is in trances, to a height that few can scale, save by long and weary dances; surely, never had a male under such like circumstances so adventurous a tale, which may rank with most romances.

Oh sure Ko-Ko might enjoy all the general deferring by the common folk, but his new lot in life presents a couple of unpleasant tasks. First he is expected to separate folks from their beloved heads. Second, after another set of curious events he is left with no choice other than to woo and wed a rather unpleasant woman named Katisha.

Ko-Ko ended up in a mess because he merely floated with the current. Not being proactive, lacking a plan of his own, a plan was trust upon him.

Hillary Rodham Clinton, Harvey Mackay, John L. Beckley have all been credited with some version of this saying:
If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.

Ko-Ko did not have a plan. While he did create a list of possible decapitation candidates, a dutiful task for any Lord High Executioner, that was after he had already been wafted around a bit and dubbed (or dooped) Lord High Executioner.

Experts tell us the best laid plans are:

  1. Written. If we just keep plans in our heads they have a way of morphing, a great way to justify when we don't stick to them. Yes Ko-Ko had written a list, but it also needed to be . . .

  2. Measurable. It's not enough to say you're going to chop off a few heads; you need to say you'll chop off X-number of heads before a certain date or you'll have no concrete way of knowing when you've actually attained your goal.

  3. Attainable. You've got to pace yourself. You're not going to decapitate too many criminals when you're first starting out. Set a do-able measurement for your goal, but don't be afraid to push yourself.


Flotsam and jetsam go wherever the current takes them and where they'll wind up is anyone's guess. But we're not sea debris; we can be proactive and plan for our own choices. They'll find someone to be Lord High Executioner, but does it really have to be you?

Lesson 3: Win-Win Thinking For Multi-Talented Fairies and Mortals


Henry Ford may not have invented the assembly line, but it's probably safe to say his use of the concept helped it catch on. His first conveyor-belt version of it started cranking out sub-assemblies and chassis somewhere around April 1st, 1913, but hardly anyone considered it a bad April Fools joke.

Workers were trained in the art of specialization, and the assembly-line exploded on 20th Century America. All over it, to be exact.

And soon, gone were the Renaissance men, the generalists, the Ben Franklins among us who joyously pursued varied vocations. The number of kites flown in thunder storms reduced drastically as well.

Teachers everywhere started asking children what they want to be when they grow up, and Sigmund Freud's psychoanalysis business really started taking off.

But Gilbert and Sullivan had long since addressed this situation in their fairy opera, Iolanthe.

You see, young Strephon faces a problem with duplicity. Being born of an unlawful marriage between a fairy mother and a mortal father, he is fairy from the waist up but his legs are entirely mortal. But does he let this get him down?

Of course not. Would I write about him if he were a loser like that?

Oh sure, he hesitates about telling the little secret to his fiance. But when he does, his fiance is very glad to know his bottom half is the mortal part.

At first there is a little strife between the fairies and the mortals over the whole issue, but following the Gilbert and Sullivan tradition, everything ends in a win-win situation.

Stephen Covey listed "Think Win-Win" as number four in Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Covey learned a lot from Gilbert and Sullivan.

Covey also listed four steps to win-win thinking. Covey used a lot of lists.

  1. See the problem from the other point of view, in terms of the needs and concerns of the other party.

  2. Identify the key issues and concerns (not positions) involved.

  3. Determine what results would make a fully acceptable solution.

  4. Identify new options to achieve those results.


But what if you, like Strephon, struggle with embracing your inner fairy? What if you feel there are two halves to you and never the twain shall meet (nor never shall the two meet Twain)?

The same process applies.

Multiple interests and talents are common among creative types. But thanks to the Industrial Revolution and things like Ford's Great April Fools Joke the multi-talented are often encouraged to choose one thing and go with it. It's nobody's fault, it's just the brainwashing we've all had.

However, by learning to think win-win about our multiple interests (okay, so if you have several just tack on more wins and think win-win-win or whatever) we come up with true solutions to help us live happy and congruent lives.

Choose one paradigm and you're thinking win-lose, surpress them both and you're thinking lose-lose. But embrace your inner fairy and everybody wins.

Lesson 4: I Am the Very Model of a Modern Armchair Generalist


Frank Gelette Burgess, artist, art critic, poet, author, humorist, and inventor of the Purple Cow once said, "To appreciate nonsense requires a serious interest in life."

Leonardo da Vinci (whose introduction requires no laundry list of accomplishments) is quoted with: "Go some distance away because then the work appears smaller and more of it can be taken in at a glance and a lack of harmony and proportion is more readily seen."

Gilbert and Sullivan addressed these same ideas in the Major-General's famous patter song from The Pirates of Penzance.

Understanding military leadership's necessity to see things from a distance, as well as their ability to appreciate nonsense, the Major-General breezily rattles off a laundry list of his impressive academic accomplishments.
I am the very model of a modern Major-General,
I've information vegetable, animal, and mineral,
I know the kings of England, and I quote the fights historical
From Marathon to Waterloo, in order categorical;
I'm very well acquainted, too, with matters mathematical,
I understand equations, both the simple and quadratical,
About binomial theorem I'm teeming with a lot o' news,
With many cheerful facts about the square of the hypotenuse.

What's that? You say knowing the croaking chorus from The Frogs of Aristophanes, understanding calculus and binomial theorem, and the ability to whistle all the airs from that delightful operetta H.M.S. Pinafore has nothing to do with military competency? Rubbish, I say!

Granted, a taste for G & S does require an ability to appreciate nonsense, but this capacity may easily transfer into an ability to see the all-important bigger picture in life, work, and all the above. Gilbert and Sullivan's patter song could be the anthem for modern armchair generalists.
I am the very model of a modern Armchair Generalist,
I treat life like a drug store and approach it with a lotta lists . . .

Stephen Covey tells us if we ever hope to be one of the seven highly effective people with habits, we must "sharpen the saw." Although many of us do in fact have an axe to grind, sharpening our saws is an entirely different affair; of course Mr. Covey is (in part) talking about sharpening our minds.

Of course, sharpening our minds doesn't give us carte blanche to go all willy nilly. In his novel, The Prime Minister, Anthony Trollope describes the character Everett Wharton:
[He] had read much, and although he generally forgot what he read, there were left with him from his reading certain nebulous lights, begotten by other men's thinking, which enabled him to talk on most subjects. It cannot be said of him that he did much thinking for himself - but he thought that he thought.

And of course any conversation about thinking leads us to the famous Dr. Seuss-ian epiphany:
And he puzzled three hours, till his puzzler was sore. Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn't before! 'Maybe Christmas,' he thought, 'doesn't come from a store. Maybe Christmas . . . perhaps . . . means a little bit more!'

Taking in the view from Mt. Crumpit, the Grinch became a generalist, a divergent thinker. Gilbert and Sullivan, Stephen Covey, and Benjamin Franklin would all be proud.

Creative minds unite untie.

Lesson 5: Little Buttercup On Seeking First to Understand


In Gilbert and Sullivan's operetta H.M.S. Pinafore, things are not what they seem. It appears young sailor Ralph Rackstraw loves above his station in life, the Captain's fair daughter Josephine. But as in life and as in the bulk of the G & S Canon, things are seldom what they seem.

In fact, under her gay and frivolous exterior, so gay and frivolous everyone calls her "Little Buttercup," dockside vendor Mrs. Cripps hints she may be hiding a dark secret.
The others however are as uninterested in hearing her secret as she is in revealing it.

But after a great deal of general topsy-turvy we learn Mrs. Cripps had once been the nursemaid of Ralph Rackstraw and Josephine's father, the Captain. Prone to confusion, she inadvertently switched the two babes and Ralph should in fact be the Captain and the Captain should in fact be Ralph.

So being of high birth, Ralph hadn't loved above his station at all, but below it. As such, he is free to marry the low-born but lovely Josephine.

Two hours of twisted plots could have been avoided if everyone had sought to understand Mrs. Cripps' earlier warnings. But of course we would not have had two hours of Sullivan's lovely music either, so all is forgiven.

In Stephen Covey's The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, he extols us seek first to understand, then to be understood.

And Mrs. Cripps extols us:
Things are seldom what they seem,
Skim milk masquerades as cream;
Highlows pass as patent leathers;
Jackdaws strut in peacock's feathers.

I think Covey may have learned a thing or two from Mrs. Cripps.

Lesson 6: Aesthetic Poets and "To Thine Own Self Be True"


Aesthetics. These are people who really get into appearances. They suffer for the sake of suffering, and supposedly that makes great art.

Gilbert and Sullivan's operetta Patience, Reginald Bunthorne is an aesthetic poet whose apparent sincerity and purity make him a big hit with the ladies. I say "apparent" because he is a total fake. In a private moment with the audience, Bunthorne gives a little advice:
If you're anxious for to shine in the high aesthetic line as a man of culture rare,
You must get up all the germs of the transcendental terms, and plant them ev'rywhere.
You must lie upon the daisies and discourse in novel phrases of your complicated state of mind,
The meaning doesn't matter if it's only idle chatter of a transcendental kind.
And ev'ry one will say,
As you walk your mystic way,
"If this young man expresses himself in terms too deep for me,
Why, what a very singularly deep young man this deep young man must be!"

Here is what Wikipedia (love Wikipedia) had to say about Gilbert and Sullivan's operetta Patience:
The opera is a satire on the aesthetic movement of the 1870s and '80s in England, when the output of poets, composers, painters and designers of all kinds was indeed prolific-but, some argued, empty and self-indulgent. This artistic movement was so popular, and also so easy to ridicule as a meaningless fad, that it made Patience a big hit.

Bunthorne teaches us a sort of anti-lesson. Contrary to what he might advise, be true to yourself.

Embrace all the varied and wonderful things that make you unique and unleash that on the world, even if you feel foolish. Your right people will find you if you're not hiding behind something else, something that isn't really you. Then sit back and don't worry about what will come; the right things will come along with the right people. Just let your creative spirit go skipping down the halls, if that's what it needs to do.

Being true to yourself is the first priority.

Lesson 7: Begin With the End in Mind


Returning to The Mikado, Pooh-Bah holds numerous exalted offices including Lord Chief Justice, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Master of the Buckhounds, Lord High Auditor, Groom of the Back Stairs, and Lord High Everything Else. Wikipedia says:
The name has come to be used as a mocking title for someone self-important or high-ranking and who either exhibits an inflated self-regard, who acts in several capacities at once, or who has limited authority while taking impressive titles.

It isn't so much an issue of inflated self-regard, and while I Pooh-Bah may have had a penchant for holding grand-sounding titles, he had a goal in mind: power. His willingness to wear so many hats was just the price he was willing to pay for his ambition. Through all these efforts, he kept the end in mind.

Mark Twain offered some advice:
Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.

An old joke asks how you can sculpt an elephant. The answer is this: Get a huge block of marble, then chip away everything that doesn't look like an elephant.

Or as Stephen Covey says, "Begin with the end in mind."

And With That in Mind, Here is the End


At eighteen I didn't realize how true to human nature these silly little characters really were. Since then I've crossed paths with the persistent Katisha in real life, I've known others who habitually wafted to and fro like Ko-Ko, and each of the operetta's surprisingly three-dimensional characters have appeared in other faces throughout my adult life. But what really surprises me is when I notice elements these merry musicals' characters in myself.

Now I just need to heed their sage advice.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

How Obscure Clarity Can Improve Your Writing

In On Writing, Earnest Hemingway says, “I try always to do the thing by three-cushion shots rather than by words or direct statements. But maybe we must have direct statements too.”

E.B. White is often quoted with, “Be obscure clearly.”

Hemingway's three-cushion shot and White's obscure clarity could be seen as extensions of the “show, don’t tell” advice often given to fiction writers, but the implications of both techniques could mean added texture for a story, allowing the reader to fill in the blanks from his own experience.

Case Studies for Obscure Clarity

Utopian and dystopian literature have long been strongholds for the imaginative use of obscurity. Inventing new societies, new governments, and new social norms have been the hallmark of these genres. In the process they have specifically capitalized on the use of satire, symbolism and euphemism. Utopian and dystopian authors have utilized White's obscure clarity through the names assigned to characters, locations, themes, and everyday vocabulary used within the context of the story. In his Utopia, Thomas More criticized the religious and political views of his contemporaries by obscuring his true intentions through the use of satire. Ayn Rand used religious symbolism in Anthem to exalt the pursuit of one’s true self. In The Handmaid’s Tale Margaret Atwood applies the use of euphemisms to show how we might become used to just about anything, however tyrannical or foreign it initially seems. Other writers, as well as film makers, built euphemisms, established symbolism, and wrote in a satirical manner to both cloak and intensify their messages. By the use of obscure clarity, the resulting pieces of literature have become powerful works of fiction, capable of clearly delivering messages beyond what might have been possible without the use of such three-cushion shots.

Satire in Thomas More's Utopia

Thomas More was a man of deep religious convictions, a devout Roman Catholic who was canonized in 1935, four hundred years after his death, by Pope Pius XI. More was declared the patron saint of politicians and statesmen by Pope John Paul II. It should be reasonable then to assume More’s religious and political views would be similar to those of the church he served. But More’s fictional Utopia, completed in 1516, flies in the face of his century’s religious convention with its free society of religious experimentation and political socialism. Understanding the names of places, people and even the book’s title will reveal More’s satirical purposes in writing the book.

Modern readers have come to understand a “utopia” as a paradise, a world built on higher ideals where the lamb lays down with the lion. As such, it would be natural to assume that in this book More had explained his designs for a more perfect world, with his own religious, political, and moral beliefs fulfilled. But in fact, the word “utopia” (which was coined by More himself from Latin) would be literally translated as “no place”. By calling his dreamland “Utopia” More is betraying his story, showing it is a made up tale; he is literally calling it a place which does not, and presumably cannot, exist. He further betrays his true view by the names he assigns to various characters and places within the story. The primary narrator, the character who describes this paradise to his companions, is a traveler named Raphael Hythlodaeus. Although he is telling his tale to two real-life, historical characters, Thomas More and his friend Peter Gilles, Raphael is a fictional character. Since the character’s name is chosen by the author, it opens the door to investigate the reason this particular name was assigned. Because More was widely known to be a deeply religious man, it doesn’t require too much stretching of the imagination to assume More chose the name “Raphael” with its Biblical counterpart in mind.

In the Bible, Raphael was the name of an angel. The angel Raphael was mentioned in the Book of Tobit. He guides Tobias and later cures his father of his blindness and helps him recover his property. Because of this story, Raphael is considered an angel-physician, an agent of healing who cured both the bodies and the souls of men. In fact, the name “Raphael” is from the Hebrew for “God has healed”. Throughout the Bible, angels are seen as ministers of light and illumination, proclaiming messages from God. The angel Gabriel was said to have delivered tidings to a virgin named Mary, who was to bear the son of God. The archangel Michael is one of the principal angels in Abrahamic tradition; his name was said to have been the war-cry of the angels in the battle fought in heaven against Satan and his followers. Therefore, the name Raphael carries connotations of a healing messenger, with a message of possible divine origin. Taking this into consideration it might appear More professed his Utopia to possess an illuminated culture, and that imitating their society would mean the deliverance of humanity. Deeper exploration of the book shows this isn’t the case at all.

More assigned Raphael the surname Hythlodaeus, which when translated from the Latin means “dispenser of nonsense”. So although he may have been named after an angel, a messenger of light, the Raphael Hythlodaeus character is designed to be simply a messenger of nonsense. More’s satiric intent was further underscored when he used this character to describe a country whose name literally means “no place”, and its river of no water and its ruler with no people. Most of the proper names More used in Utopia are words of Greek derivation, invented for More’s purposes. Anydrus (the name of a river in Utopia) means “not water”, and Ademus (the chief magistrate’s title) means “not people”.

In the introduction to his translation from the original Latin, Paul Turner states:
It is clear from an ironical passage in a letter to Peter Gilles that More expected the educated reader to understand these names; and, to ensure that their significance was not overlooked, he mentioned in the book itself that the Utopian language contains some traces of Greek in place-names and official titles.
The implied benefits of divorce, euthanasia, married priests, and women priests, expressed in Utopia, disagreed with More’s celebrated dedication to devout Catholicism. More was a persecutor of heretics (Protestants) yet the book extolled the virtues of embracing varied religions, and even under the same roof. The piece engaged in political criticism, but More himself was Lord Chancellor, an influential English lawyer. Communism and the idea of communal living expressed as an ideal in Utopia could be seen as the opposite view expected from a rich landowner such as More.

Satire was an established staple in Medieval and Renaissance literature. These periods gave birth to such greats as Geoffrey Chaucer and Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. English pieces from the late Medieval period were aimed primarily at hypocrisy within the church. Even if he did not criticize the church, within the protective walls of satire’s three-cushion punch More was afforded the safety to criticize other religious and political fancies of the day.

Symbolism in Ayn Rand's Anthem

Few would dispute that Twentieth Century literature has been impacted by the work of Ayn Rand. Every book written by Ayn Rand is still in print and sales each year number in the hundred thousands. More than 20 million copies of her books have been sold to date.

In the summer of 1937 Rand constructed a dystopian tale of mankind in the distant future called Anthem. Unlike More, Rand’s reasons for writing the short novel are fairly transparent; she did not obscure her message through the use of Greek. If her motives are not readily apparent within the story, then the title can easily be broken down to reveal Rand’s motives. An anthem is a piece of music with religious significance. It is often made of scripture, and is sung or recited as a proclamation of faith. In naming her story Anthem, Rand declares its purposes, but in this case these purposes are not religious in the traditional sense of the word. In a letter Rand explains the final two chapters of the book are the actual anthem, and it is obviously an anthem to the individual.

The working title Rand used for this short novel was “Ego”. However, as she corresponded in November of 1946 to Richard de Mille:
I used the word in its exact, literal meaning, I did not mean a symbol of the self – but specifically and actually Man’s Self.
In an introduction to the 50th Anniversary American Edition of Anthem, Leonard Peikoff explains:
Although the word ego remains essential to the text, the title was changed to Anthem for publication. This was not an attempt to soften the book; it was a step that Ayn Rand took on every novel. Her working titles were invariably blunt and unemotional, naming explicitly, for her own clarity, the central issue of the book.
On another level the names she assigned to her characters, as well as their social significance and assignment within the story, add another layer of meaning to the text. In the world she has created, our own world but in the distant future, people are expected to view themselves only as part of a larger whole, a single cog in a larger machine. The individual is not recognized, and preferences are not permitted. To further this agenda, names are assigned at birth via committee, and are such socially oriented names as “Unity”, “Union” and “International”. No surnames are used, but instead a string of numbers is attached. These names have no individual meaning and are merely used to indicate which cog a person is in the great machine of society.

As the story progresses, two of Rand’s characters explore possibilities of the naming convention. Rand uses this realization as a stepping stone toward their ultimate realization and understanding of the concept of an individual. They assign descriptive names, which appear more like titles, such as “The Golden One” and “The Unconquered”. In this case, Rand’s naming choices revealed the characters’ growing understanding of “self”.

As Rand’s characters gain further awareness, they begin to explore the symbolic possibilities of an individualized name. Rand’s protagonist names himself Prometheus, symbolic of his attempt to share his light box invention with his brethren and the resulting persecution. Prometheus then names his female partner “Gaea” to symbolically show that she is to be the mother of a new race. The lives of both characters have shown parallels to their mythological-god namesakes, and we are led to expect further godlike parallels from them in the future.

Throughout the piece, Rand employs forms of symbolism by means other than name. For instance to deepen the humanistic values of her text, she pulls images from the Bible. Her protagonist pulls light from the heavens and delivers it to his brothers with a message of hope for the future, but is rejected and persecuted. He discovers a word from ancient times, the word “I”, and proclaims it is a god, to be followed and worshiped for its own ends. Rand draws from the Biblical account of Adam and Eve as well. Overall, Rand uses the depth of symbolism to enrich the messages within her text.

Euphemism in Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale

Margaret Atwood is a Booker Prize-Winning author who has received numerous awards and several honorary degrees, including the Canadian Governor General’s Award, Le Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in France, and the National Arts Club Medal of Honor for Literature. Her works have been published in more than twenty-five countries. In her novel The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood capitalizes on society’s tendency to euphemize difficult situations as a way to gain their general acceptance.

The Handmaid’s Tale paints the picture of a dystopia from the then-near future. One of the distinctive features of this world is how names are assigned to a position, a job, and each handmaid assumes that name when they take that job placement. The names of handmaids in the story, such as Offred, Ofwarren, or Ofglen merely show that handmaid is the property of Fred, of Warren, or of Glen; as such, the women are reduced to the level of an object. Just as I may own a car and call it “my car”, when it’s sold a new car takes its place and is given the moniker “my car”; the names of handmaid characters in Atwood’s story show a similar lack of personal regard.

While not directly named for their assignments, two other official forms of employment for women are assigned generalized names, the “Aunts” who train the handmaids, and the “Marthas” who run the households. Guards are called “Angels” and men in leadership roles (within the Gilead regime, the government within the story) are called “Commanders”. Atwood utilizes such “friendly” names to assist in hiding the grim realities within the story; such euphemisms as “angels”, “handmaids”, and “aunts” hide the real duties of characters assigned to these positions.

In particular, the term “handmaid” is applied to the nameless surrogate mothers forced into slavery to bare children for the country’s sterile elite. The term is taken from the Biblical account of Rachel and Jacob.
And when Rachel saw that she bare Jacob no children, Rachel envied her sister; and said unto Jacob, Give me children, or else I die.And Jacob’s anger was kindled against Rachel; and he said, Am I in God’s stead, who hath withheld from thee the fruit of the womb?And she said, Behold my maid Bilhah, go in unto her, and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her. (Genesis 30:1-3)
Reminiscent of the section titles in Geoffrey Chaucer's medieval narrative poem The Canterbury Tales, where Chaucer's text personalizes his storytellers even though they are identified by their profession, Atwood creates a complex narrator for her story. The complexity of the narrator, Offred, is in contrast to the generic qualities of her name.
My name isn’t Offred, I have another name, which nobody uses now because it’s forbidden. I tell myself it doesn’t matter, your name is like your telephone number, useful only to others; but what I tell myself is wrong, it does matter.
Atwood utilized other euphemisms to reflect the utilitarian sensibilities of the governing culture within her story. A short Biblical reading and the subsequent act of fornication imposed upon the handmaidens was called a “ceremony”. The resultant babies, when they were not correctly formed or had some other defect, were called “Unbabies”, and women who could not conceive were called “Unwomen”. Assassinations of the rebellious and disobedient were not called executions, but “Salvaging” and were seen merely as an “unpleasant necessity”. Even the handmaids’ slogan, “From each according to her ability; to each according to his needs” could be seen as a euphemism for the reality of slavery which it strove to mask.

With such words as these, Margaret Atwood made the dystopian hell of The Handmaid’s Tale seem a place of benevolent inconveniences where anyone could grow accustomed. Ironically, in Atwood’s tale where such occasions as public hangings and slavery can be accepted as commonplace, the simple game of “Scrabble” is viewed as a dangerous, forbidden activity.

A Few More Examples

The use of obscure clarity and the three-cushion shot is not limited to Utopian or dystopian literature. However, whether by the use of satire, symbolism, euphemisms, or some other means, the these genres have drawn a long line across history from their works with hidden, or at least partially veiled, agendas. Where Edward Bellamy’s novel Looking Backward caused the formation of small book discussion groups called “Bellamy Groups” across the nation, its indirect attack on the Industrial Age from whence it came brought new attempts at social reform and affected the future for several generations. In a like manner, George Orwell’s book and the movie version of 1984 sent reverberations around the globe for introducing the concept of a futuristic “Big Brother” who is always watching us.

The use of euphemism as a means of creating obscure clarity may also be seen in the smog-choked dystopian Los Angeles of 2019 in Ridley Scott’s 1982 film, Blade Runner. In this film, a class of androids has been created to perform slave labor on remote planets. In some instances these androids are too smart for their own good and become dangerous. However they are not “exterminated”, despite their decidedly human appearance and actions; the term used for their annihilation is that they are simply “retired”. One could only guess if such a euphemism is applied to the “retirement” of human individuals as well.

A Kinder, Gentler, Message?

The self-proclaimed prophets of our modern society stand on street corners within the city. They hold up their cardboard signs and warn us to “repent.” As we cross their paths we duck our heads and hide our eyes, pretending they are not there and never considering their messages. At the most we might throw a dollar in their hat with the small hope that somehow it will make them go away. Such prophets have always been with us. But other prophets approach us on the literary sidewalks. They capture our imaginations with tales of a time to come and the possibilities of the future. These prophets also warn us of our folly, but we listen carefully. We give these prophets of the literary sidewalk our rapt attention because they do not hit us with their messages head on. These prophets shrewdly approach us and spin their tales with an obscure clarity. They tell us of our folly, but soften the blow with a three-cushion shot so we are not offended. For this sensibility, we regard these writers as our best and brightest, the wise sages among us.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Plato ' s " Allegory of the Cave " and the Film " Barton Fink "


[caption id="" align="alignright" width="274" caption="Image via Wikipedia"]Barton Fink[/caption]

In 1941 a $1,000 or $2,000 a week offer to write for Hollywood would be pretty tempting, even if you felt your poetic and insightful work for the New York stage had started to make a difference in the lives of common man. Then if you're a good Jewish boy, like Barton Fink in the Oscar-nominated film bearing his name, accepting such an offer might be tantamount to selling your soul to the devil. You might as well check yourself into Hell right now, and that's exactly what Fink did when he got a room at the Hotel Earle, a seedy Hollywood place where you can stay "A day or a lifetime."
The bellhop ascended from a trap door behind the counter, something like Satan appearing on stage during a play (possibly an allusion to Fink leaving his stage-writing career behind). Fink's sixth-floor destination is announced three times in the elevator, alluding of course to the mark of the beast. Most consequential of all, Fink meets his neighbor Charlie Meadows whose anger and frustration not only increases the hotel's temperature but ultimately produces fire (obviously a symbolic fire since it is no impediment to Fink departing the "burning" hotel). If Fink had noticed the pencil on the hotel stationary didn't have a lead, then perhaps he might have realized this might not be the best place to do his writing.
While theatre and film are two places illusion reigns supreme, it might be argued the stage is a little less illusory since we are at least viewing live actors. In film, we watch shadows of actors from a time somewhere in the past. With this in mind, it could be said Fink began a descent from reality to illusion the moment he agreed to write for film. This descent into illusion increased throughout the story, with Fink's world (or at least his view of it) becoming less and less likely, and ultimately ending in a conversation between Fink and the mysterious "girl on the beach" from a painting in his hotel room.
Plato's Allegory of the Cave, provides us with an almost prophetic description of the illusory effect of Hollywood movies. In it, prisoners watch shadows projected on a cave wall much like we view a movie projected onto a screen. In the allegory, the prisoners have never seen the real objects which make these shadows. The prisoners only hear sounds through echos off the same cave wall, again like our experience in the cinema. Because this has been their only experience since birth, the prisoners assume these shadows are the real thing and they cannot imagine any other reality. In movies we are asked to buy into the reality projected on a screen. The line between shadow or illusion, and reality, can become blurred, even if this effect is only temporary.
In Barton Fink, Fink loses his ability to distinguish between "shadows" and the real thing. Hotel Earle seems to be the epicenter and to some extent the impetus of Fink's departure from reality. Like some of Plato's allegorical prisoners venture from the cave Fink ventures from his hotel room, but his experiences in the "real world" are not as enlightening as those of the prisoners. He meets the writer W.P. Mayhew, whom Fink practially idolizes. Mayhew dresses in a white suit and has written a novel about Nebuchadnezzar, which could mean he is meant to be a "God" character in contrast to Charlie representing a fallen angel (if not Satan himself). Fink associates Mayhew's writing with the Holy Bible, seeing Mayhew's text written in biblical format, but when he imagines his own words printed on such a page, Fink's struggle with writer's block only increases. Fink learns Mayhew's texts were in fact written by a personal secretary, but when he tries to adopt her as his own muse she is murdered by Charlie, who has in his own way tried to be such a muse.
Unlike the prisoners in Plato's allegory, Fink's experiences outside the cave do not inform his understanding of the illusions in the film industry and his hotel room.


Anti-Semitism and Satire in Chaucer ' s " The Prioress ' Tale "


The legendary English child martyr, Little Saint Hugh of Lincoln, died August 27, 1255. The 9-year-old boy had been found dead in a well, the victim of an anonymous murder. A story soon followed that a Jew named Koppin had imprisoned and tortured the boy for more than a month, eventually crucifying him. The body had supposedly been thrown in the well because the earth refused to receive it. Although there was little factual evidence to substantiate the story, legend states the boy was murdered for ritual purposes.
More than 90 Jews were subsequently arrested and charged with the practice of ritualistic murder, and Koppin, who is said to have confessed, was executed along with 18 others. Soon after the body was discovered, miracles were attributed to Hugh.
The story grew in popularity as well as detail and in time an anti-Semitic cult grew around the legend. Hugh’s martyrdom became a popular subject in Medieval Literature, but the name does not appear in the standard Butler’s Lives of the Saints (1998).
The Prioress’ Tale, from Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales is perhaps the most notable among stories which drew from the legend about Little Saint Hugh of Lincoln. In Chaucer’s version, the story is told by a nun, a Prioress, who is one of the pilgrims on their way from Southwark to the shrine of St. Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral, a popular travel destination of the time. But although Chaucer’s version is not as long as many of the other stories in The Canterbury Tales, its association with the Hugh of Lincoln legend has made it one of the more controversial.
Unfortunately, the original legend is a clear example of anti-Semitism, and although the Prioress merely retells the original story, modern readers ask Chaucer to answer for its inclusion among his works. Chaucer is not afforded the privilege many authors enjoy which allows their separation from the characters they create; while others may write of murder without being called murderers themselves, this particular story is often quoted to accuse Chaucer himself of holding and promoting anti-Semitic views.
But the question arises, is it a fair accusation? Can an author draw upon the canon of existing legend without being seen as sympathetic to that legend’s particular views? Does the legend’s inclusion make Chaucer, or even his Prioress character, anti-Semitic as well? While there is little doubt the original tale shows a certain amount of prejudice against Jews, could Chaucer have used the story for another purpose entirely?
In this essay we will look at the anti-Semitic aspects of the legend about Little Hugh of Lincoln, as Chaucer presented it in his Canterbury Tales. Once the tale’s difficulties are presented, we will take a look at the character who tells it, the Prioress, and explore what her purposes might have been in bringing this story to the table. By doing so, we can decide if the Prioress, and by association Chaucer, are truly spreading bigotry and racial hatred or had some other end in mind.
I would argue the later is the case; I would argue both the Prioress and Chaucer had another end in mind, although both ends were certainly not the same.
After the Holocaust, is the subject of anti-Semitism so emotionally charged that it is the one topic a writer cannot touch without leaving blood on his own hands? Chaucer is not alone in this struggle; Shakespeare is sometimes accused of anti-Semitic sympathies for of his creation of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. But should we use what is largely a nineteenth century idea to condemn those who came before? Can those who lived prior to invention of the term be guilty of its practice?
In his essay, Madame Eglentyne, Geoffrey Chaucer, and the Problem of Medieval Anti-Semitism, Philip S. Alexander wrote:
The term 'anti-Semitism' itself did not emerge till the late nineteenth century, when it was used by the proponents of a world-view (widely deemed then as acceptable), which embraced three main tenets: first, Jewish culture is inferior to Germanic culture; second, the Jews are plotting to undermine Germanic culture and to foist their own cultural values on society; and, third, in the interests of progress and civilization society has a duty to defend itself against Jewish domination and to purge itself of decadent Jewish culture. Nineteenth-century anti-Semitism was often racist in that it espoused the belief that culture and race were interconnected, and so the inferior Jewish culture was seen as the product of inferior Jewish genes. However, racism, in this precise technical sense, was not fundamental to the anti-Semitic point of view.

If the term did not exist, might we conclude the problem was not anti-Semitism as much as anti-Judaism? It is clear medieval society was deeply influenced by Christianity, and it is popular to dismiss malice against Jews in the Middle Ages as religious zeal, holding that the Medieval hatred of Jews existed only for their religious practices, and pointing out how Medieval Jews could be redeemed if they converted to Christianity.
It could be more correct to say the idea Medieval Jews could be redeemed and accepted in England by converting to Christianity looked good on paper, but didn’t always play out in reality. In reality, conversion did not always save a Jew from harassment, or even death. The Spanish “conversos”, who adopted the Christian religion after severe persecution in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, and were expelled from Spain in 1390, were still identified as Jews in the minds of many Roman Catholic churchmen.
While there is evidence Jews and Christians lived together in peace during the early Medieval times, marrying and sharing both language and culture, by the early 11th century Jews in various parts of Europe faced violence and forced conversions. In 1215, Pope Innocent III declared Jews to be in perpetual servitude for the killing of Christ. In the fourth Lateran Council of 1215, Jews were ordered to wear distinctive clothing and forbidden to hold public office or to appear in public during the final three days of the Easter season. After the discovery and burning of the Talmud by Christians in the 13th century, the Jews were considered heretics for their acceptance of the document and the church had already started the Inquisition as a Crusade against heresy. Prior to that time, the church believed Jews should remain until the end of time to be witnesses to the truth of Christian revelation. However, by the thirteenth century theological justification for their continued existence had begun to waiver.
Regardless of its place in history, support for the labeling of The Prioress’ Tale as anti-Semitic literature seems to be readily available within the tale itself. The Prioress repeatedly refers to the Jews as “cursed”, which seems to refer to the curse they called down upon their own heads when they goaded Pilate into crucifying Jesus:
When Pilate saw that he could prevail nothing, but that rather a tumult was made, he took water, and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, I am innocent of the blood of this just person: see ye to it. Then answered all the people, and said, His blood be on us, and on our children (Matthew 27:24f).

Similarly, the Prioress invites us to draw parallels between the Jews’ murder of Little Hugh and their ancestors’ involvement with the crucifixion of Christ. We are invited to view this little devotee of the Virgin Mary as a representation of her son, and associate his murder with the crucifixion of Jesus. While there is no ritualistic murder in Chaucer, legends associated with the original legend do involve ritual and clearly imply a connection with, and possibly a mockery of, the ritualized crucifixion of Christ.
The tale’s line, “The blood out crieth on youre cursed dede” seems a to present an echo of the Bible’s Cain and Abel story, drawing from the point when God said to Cain:
What hast thou done? The voice of thy brother's blood crieth unto me from the ground. And now thou art cursed from the earth, which hath opened her mouth to receive thy brother's blood from thy hand . . . a fugitive and a vagabond shalt thou be in the earth. And Cain said unto the Lord, My punishment is greater than I can bear. Behold thou has driven me out this day from the face of the earth; and from thy face shall I be hid; and I shall be a fugitive and a vagabond in the earth; and it shall come to pass, that everyone that findeth me shall slay me (Genesis 4:10-14).

In Christian exegesis Cain is frequently seen to typify the Jew (the wanderer rejected by both God and man) and Abel is taken as a type of the just man. Able is seen to represent the Christian, or more significantly Christ, on whom the Jew tries to vent his spite. Inclusion of this reference in The Prioress’ Tale seems to strengthen the intended connection between the curgeon and the Christ.
Parallels between Christ and Little Hugh may also stand behind the Provost’s swift judgment upon the Jews. Much like the Jews’ murder of Christ is said to have brought a curse, their murder of the clergeon brought a “cursednesse” upon them as well.
With torment and with shameful deeth echon,
This provost dooth thise Jewes for to sterve
That of this mordre wiste, and that anon.
He nolde no swich cursednesse observe.
"Yvele shal have that yvele wol deserve";
Therfore with wilde hors he dide hem drawe,
And after that he heng them by the lawe.

These attempts to create an association between the clergeon and Christ seem calculated to remind us of how it was the Jews who had Jesus crucified, just as they were reported to have had Hugh of Lincoln slain. Similar examples of anti-Semitic thought seem to stack up throughout "The Prioress’ Tale". We are presented with lines which seem to connect the tale both with King Herod’s attempt to kill the infant Jesus, which instead resulted in the slaughter of innocent children, and the descendants of Herod whose crucifixion of Christ did not stop his message from being carried forward.
O cursed folk of Herod come again,
Of what avail your villainous intent?

The lines, “His mother, swooning as they went along / Beside the bier, could not be reconciled, / A second Rachel, weeping for her child” seem to echo the application in Matthew 2:18 of Jeremiah 40:1 to the slaughter of the innocents:
In Rama was there a voice heard, lamentation, and weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted, because they were not.

The Prioress also reminds reader of scenes from mystery plays in which devils incite the Hebrews to demand the death of Jesus:
First of our foes, the Serpent Satan shook
Those Jewish hearts that are his waspish nest,
Swelled up and said, ‘O Hebrew people look!
Is this not something that should be redressed?
Is such a boy to roam as he thinks best
Singing to spite you, canticles and saws
Against the reverence of your holy laws?

On the surface, all of these references seemingly amount to damnable evidence against Chaucer, the Prioress, and the case of anti-Semitism. It seems all these forces have joined, through the pen of one, to condemn the Jews as a whole for the murder of Christ, and the murder of the clergeon. We hear the Prioress, a nun from the upper echelon of the church, condemning the Jews in a bigoted and prejudiced voice, and condoning their destruction. Further, since there does not seem to be a clear disclaimer where Chaucer indicates the story’s views are not his own.
However, when we try to understand a work such as The Prioress’ Tale, as well as The Canterbury Tales as a whole, it is important to remember they are both in fact more than 600 years old. To assume Chaucer’s characters held the same opinions, morals, and philosophies as the average modern reader is to deny the more than 600 years of thought, history, and discovery which has shaped and molded the “modern mind”. If we approach the Prioress with a post-Holocaust mindset, and ask it to answer to post-Holocaust sensibilities, isn’t it possible we could be hypersensitive to the tale’s references to Jews? If we overlay the Prioress’ story with a filter created by 600 years of changes in religious thought, we might assume she tells it from a platform of vanity, hypocrisy, and possibly even heresy; we are apt to see the Prioress as someone far from Christian ideals, at least as we see such things today.
To discover the true intent behind Chaucer’s work, lacking such an explanation from Chaucer himself, we could study the art and fashion of his time. Understanding Medieval art and fashion might shed some light on Chaucer’s use of the legend, and his reasons for causing the Prioress to tell it, if we can remain open minded. No work of art springs from the mind of its creator fully grown, like Venus on the half shell; it is the product of the community, the society, and the world which existed at the time of its birth. To fully understand any work of art, we must try to understand at least something of its world.
In literary criticism, art history, and historical analysis of the mid to late fourteenth century, we hear a recurring theme of ritual and the ascendancy of emotion over the rational. Although a simplification of complex processes not restricted to that century, this shift in emphasis leaves us with the distinct impression that the Middle Ages valued emotion as the sure road to the knowledge of God.
David Knowles, Regius Professor of Modern History at the University of Cambridge from 1954 to 1963, calls the Ockhamite revolution in Medieval thought (named after the 14th-century English logician and Franciscan friar William of Ockham) the "triumph of nominalism". This revolution denied the possibility for rational demonstrations of the truths in natural religion. Preeminent scholar of Chaucerian and medieval literature, Charles Musçatine, summarizes the thought of the age with:
The cleavage between reason and faith, characteristic of post-Ockhamite thought, not only generated an unsettling skepticism, but also drove faith itself further and further into the realm of the irrational.

Such a reaction is seen in the mystics’ intense concentration on the Passion of Christ and the love it is said to manifest. A similar apprehension of divine mysteries is seen in countless examples of late fourteenth-century lyrics through concentration on the small, particular elements of our world, and through the power of love.
Ockham's Via Moderna claimed all we can know for certain is the experiential, those things we can experience through the senses. Emile Mâle, a French art historian and one of the first to study medieval, mostly sacred French art and the influence of eastern European iconography, traces the development of stylistic tendencies in art at the end of the Middle Ages, tying these new styles to this change in sensibility and outlook which social historians of the period regard as one of its hallmarks:
From the end of the thirteenth century on, the artists seem no longer able to grasp the great conceptions of earlier times. Before, the Virgin enthroned held her Son with the sacerdotal gravity of the priest holding the chalice. She was the seat of the All-Powerful, 'the throne of Solomon,' in the language of the doctors. She seemed neither woman nor mother, because she was exalted above the sufferings and joys of life. She was the one whom God had chosen at the beginning of time to clothe His word with flesh. She was the pure thought of God. As for the Child, grave, majestic, hand raised,
He was already the Master Who commands a
nd Who teaches.

However, this conception disappears and is replaced by the human tenderness between the Virgin Mary and Christ. Through these tender gestures we understand the nature of love. Art transforms from a metaphor and is no longer symbolic. Fourteenth-century art becomes more particularized and more highly detailed than twelfth and thirteenth century art. It now focuses on experiences of the senses, and more particularly, on those moments which speak to the heart.
If we view The Prioress’ Tale in this light, a light which shines on emotional reaction as the only true means through which we may experience religious faith, then the tale takes on a meaning and purpose which may not have been recognized at first glance. By concentrating on the diminutive, the detail, not for its symbolic significance but for the emotional value, the Prioress’ narrative shows a literary expression of post-Ockhamite religious thought. Her concern for the small, the particular, and the emotional shows the Prioress unquestionably as a woman of her time, a woman of “fashion”.
As for her sympathies and tender feelings,
She was so charitably solicitous
She used to weep if she but saw a mouse
Caught in a trap, if it were dead or bleeding.
And she had little dogs she would be feeding
With roasted flesh, or milk, or fine white bread.
And bitterly she wept if one were dead
Or someone took a stick and made it smart;
She was all sentiment and tender heart.

The Prioress is likewise conscious of outward appearance. She is described as a careful dresser with remarkable table manners. She has studied French, but the fact her French is marked by an English accent suggests its study must have been only for show; it does not bear the authentic accent which might have been acquired if it were used for a practical purpose. The Prioress seems to practice putting forth a particular appearance, and has spent much time cultivating a certain image.
This attention to appearance might suggest a lack of depth in the Prioress’ character, and likewise in her religion; for the Prioress, the sensible world and an immediate response to it, rather than any abstract philosophy, seems to form the basis of her faith. Apparently the wide, deep spirit of forgiveness of the Gospels and the charity implicit in the doxology become real to her in the physical expression of love and conscience between herself and the small creatures that surround her. Mâle speaks of the influence of St. Francis on religious thought in the later Middle Ages; the Prioress's "conscience and tender heart" seem to follow in that tradition.
With this understanding, both The Prioress’ Tale and her Prologue become the platform for an expression of her own personal faith. But this is not a faith expressed by the hatred of Jews, a love for justice, or inspired by the little boy’s testimony among people who were walking in darkness. True, she has chosen a fairly gruesome tale which at first seems paradoxical in light of what we learn of her in the General Prologue. Further, her troublesome references to Jews seem bigoted, if not completely contradictory to the motto she wears on her arm, Amor vincit omnia, which is translated as “Love conquers all.” But in light of an understanding of the religion of her time, it could be argued she has chosen this tale only for its emotional appeal, much as its little hero has chosen to learn the song O Alma Redemptoris for his own emotional response to it. Just as he learned the song by rote without understanding its meaning, the Prioress may have learned her story without consideration of any possible deeper implications; she may not have given much credence to the original legend, and found it merely a convenient vessel to carry a message calculated to stir a deep emotional response. She felt free to embellish the tale with details demanding this emotional response, since an emotional response was the only proof she knew for showing evidence of real Christian faith.
In the Prioress’ telling, this gruesome little story takes on the feeling of a fairy tale. In fact, it could be seen as one of the more moderate forms of even that tradition. In Chaucer the clergeon is not crucified, as he is in some other versions; the murder is not a ritual murder, nor is the blood used for nefarious purposes. Moreover, since Jews had been expelled from England in 1290, the Jews of The Prioress's Tale are not drawn from life, but from literature and folklore. The Jews are not perceived as real people, but almost as mythical beings like hobgoblins, and are merely a tool used for the emotional impact of the tale. The Prioress’ lack of concern for a reality-basis to her tale is further evidenced in the tale’s setting; “a city in Asia” is merely some place with a vague exotic flair, and the improbability of its existence is as foreign a concept to the Prioress as thinking the villains in her story were flesh and blood humans instead of mere abstractions of “bad” characters.
To the Prioress, this is a tale of a mother’s love for her son. A poor woman, a widow no less, loses her son to the evil practices of a group of hobgoblins. He is such a sweet boy, with such a sweet voice, and isn’t it precious how hard he works to learn this song in honor of the Virgin Mary? She is the Queen of Heaven after all, and isn’t it interesting how she also lost her only son to the same evil hobgoblins? The worst death would be too good for those murderers.
From what we see in the other stories, just what was Chaucer’s intention for writing The Canterbury Tales? It seems clear Chaucer wrote his stories as character sketches, examples of the common folk written in their common language. The Encyclopedia Britannica states:
Because of [The Canterbury Tales’] structure, the sketches, the links, and the tales all fuse as complex presentations of the pilgrims, while at the same time the tales present remarkable examples of short stories in verse, plus two expositions in prose. In addition, the pilgrimage, combining a fundamentally religious purpose with its secular aspect of vacation in the spring, made possible extended consideration of the relationship between the pleasures and vices of this world and the spiritual aspirations for the next, that seeming dichotomy with which Chaucer, like Boethius and many other medieval writers, was so steadily concerned.

The importance Chaucer placed on stories of the common man is evident in his use of the lowly Saxon language. Anyone who wanted their work to be remembered wrote in Latin, the grammatica, the indestructible language which would never change; Cicero wrote in Latin more than 1500 years before Chaucer and Cicero was still read. In England, French was often the language of choice since the Normans had ruled there for 300 years and everyone who was anyone spoke and wrote in French. It was not a given that an English writer would write in English.
That Chaucer did not write in French is equally surprising. His translation of The Romance of the Rose provides evidence Chaucer could write well in French, and the upper class of England spoke French in their everyday lives. Although Chaucer was not of the upper class, he had married into it at a high level; his wife, Phillipa, was sister to Katherine Swynford, the third wife of John of Gaunt. As brother-in-law to the most powerful man in England (Shakespeare reminds us in Richard II that John of Gaunt was even more powerful than the king), Chaucer might have written in French to impress his in-laws and the center of Norman power.
The fact that Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales, and therefore The Prioress’ Tale, in English, the language of the lowly Anglo-Saxons, instead of French, the language of the upper-class Normans, seems to invite the assumption Chaucer did not support the idea of racial inferiority. This does not rule out the idea that Chaucer could have believed Jews were inferior for religious reasons, but our understanding of the post-Ockhamite appeal to emotionally-charged handling of subjects may provide enough reason why the tale treated Jews as nothing more than shadows, void of full human characterization and realization. The Jews were merely present to elicit an emotional response; Chaucer did not invent or encourage the response, he merely capitalized on it. To be more exact, the Prioress chose to capitalize on the expected response; it seems likely Chaucer’s intent for the tale was to paint a portrait of a woman whose faith was rooted in such emotional responses.
Critics often point out an ironic, satirical tone which seems to pervade Chaucer's treatment of the Prioress in the General Prologue. Her nice manners (139-40: 'And peyned hire to counterfete cheere / Of court') and fashionable dress (151: 'Ful semyly hir wympul pynched was') sit uneasily with her spiritual calling. She is lax in the observance of monastic rules: she eats roast meat, keeps lap-dogs and wears jewelry with the ambiguous inscription, Amor vincit omnia. The description of her physical charms, following the conventions of courtly love poetry and ending with the understatement, “For, hardily, she was not undergrowe”, is seen as nothing less than comical. Even her linguistic accomplishments (and her finishing school) are made the butt of barbed comment:
And Frenssh she spak ful faire and fetisly,
After the scole of Stratford atte Bowe,
For Frenssh of Parys was to hire unknowe.”
She weeps easily--at the suffering of small animals:
“She was so charitable and so pitous
She wolde wepe, if that she saugh a mous
Kaught in a trappe, if it were deed or bledde.

A picture emerges of a rather large, sentimental, vain woman, and Chaucer seems to be mocking her. Mocking and satire were certainly familiar to his audiences; Satirical poetry is believed to have been popular in Chaucer’s time although little has survived. Examples of such poetry may still be seen in the bawdy lyrics of Carmina Burnana, set to music by Carl Orf in the 20th Century. Aside from Chaucer, the genre was later to give birth to such greats as Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra and Jonathan Swift.
The Random House Unabridged Dictionary defines “satire”:
A literary composition, in verse or prose, in which human folly and vice are held up to scorn, derision, or ridicule, satirical writing or drama often scorns such folly by pretending to approve of values which are the diametric opposite of what the satirist actually wishes to promote.

With one foot planted firmly in Satire, Chaucer lightheartedly pokes fun and the fables and foibles of the people who populated his world. The Miller’s Tale gives us the amorous student, the lusty housewife, and the gullible husband, within one of the great short stories of all time. The Wife of Bath provides a surprisingly frank account of womanhood in medieval times, and her tale tells us nearly as much about her character as she revealed herself. In a similar fashion, The Prioress’ Tale provides insight on the character of its teller; it’s not about the legend, but it’s all about how the Prioress tells the tale.
The Prioress doesn’t tell a story about murder as much as she tells a story about a poor widow who loses her precious little son. She doesn’t tell a story about devotion to the Virgin Mary as much as she tells a story about a little boy who has an emotional response to a song which expresses such devotion. She doesn’t tell a story about cursed Jews as much as she tells a story about dark shadows that go bump in the night. Above everything, or at least encompassing it all, Chaucer doesn’t tell a story about any of these things as much as he tells a story about a woman who holds them all so dear; The Prioress’ Tale is a story about a woman who finds proof of her religious faith in the emotions she can experience from it.
Without minimizing the impact of the Holocaust or the very real problem of anti-Semitism, it can be asserted The Prioress’ Tale is not anti-Semitic by nature, even though it does include anti-Semitic content. The story does in fact contain bigotry and prejudice against Jews, but these things are twice removed from the purposes of the story; they are not necessarily the view of the Prioress, and therefore it follows they are not necessarily the view of Chaucer. The Prioress’ lack of concern for the anti-Semitic elements of her tale does not justify her use of them, but their presence in her tale does not necessarily mean she was preaching anti-Semitism, or even supported it, and their presence certainly does not make Chaucer an anti-Semitic.
Just as the Prioress used the legend of Little Hugh for her own ends, Chaucer used The Prioress’ Tale as a means to his own ends. The result is an insightful character sketch, one of several in The Canterbury Tales, which brings about an emotional response in the reader, much like the emotional response the Prioress intended to create among the pilgrims. This emotional response, if we follow post-Ockhamite philosophy, creates an experience around the reading of The Canterbury Tales which not only makes it more real to us, but is one of the reasons the work has survived more than 600 years.


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