Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Bill's Best Bits

With the dull earnestness of the dogged self-improver, I am plodding my way through the works of W Shakespeare. Actually, I'm not really plodding; in fact. I'm really enjoying it. 

And at last, The Taming of the Shrew makes sense to me. It isn't a horrible story of a woman being cowed by a man; it is a story of a member of a family who, after years of being routinely denied affection and overlooked, out of preference for her favoured sister, is full of anger, which is almost always in my experience a product of hurt:

  My tongue will tell the anger of my heart,
Or else my heart concealing it will break,
And rather than it shall I will be free
Even to the uttermost as I please in words

she declares, before being won over by someone who, loon though he may be, calls her "my honey love", a thing no-one has ever come near to doing before; someone who pays her attention that is not merely irritated but actually kind and admiring; someone who asks her:

What stars do spangle heaven with such beauty
As those two eyes become that heavenly face?

and calls her, "fair lovely maid", caring enough about her to offer her tender protection, which surely no-one has ever offered her up to this point, (and yes, I know I appear to be ignoring the "Thou knowst not gold's effect" line, but actually I'm just looking at the thing from Kate's point of view - that is, I am seeing Petruccio as he behaves towards Kate, regardless of whether his hidden motives are mercenary or not):

She is my house,
My household-stuff, my field, my barn,
My horse, my ox, my ass, my anything,
And here she stands, touch her whoever dare …
Fear not, sweet wench. They shall not touch thee, Kate

and someone who, to her initial amazement, offers her a lifelong devoted partnership and is prepared to be "one that cares for her", something no one else in her experience has done.

Thus the taming is not taming in the sense of mastering and bullying into shape but in the sense of teaching how to love and overcoming the object's belief in her own innate unlovability.

Since these revelations, I have moved on to Henry VI Part Two, (or, as my edition of the Complete Works, the 1988 Oxford University edition, prefers to call it, 'The First Part of the Contention'), which I have just finished reading.

The so-called history plays usually leave me confused, when I see them at the theatre. They involve comings and goings of large groups of fighting men and it is hard to follow the who and the why. However, reading this one has been marvellous. Whatever the who and the why, there are so many clumps of beautifully composed words in the text that it is a pleasure and delight to make one's way through it.

I like the image conjured up by the idea of someone being "Mailed up in shame", and I love the use of the word "tickle" in this pair of lines:

the state of Normandy
Stands on a tickle point now

The words "naughty" and "blab" are both appealing, probably because they no longer resonate in quite the way they did in Shakespeare's time:

Beaufort’s red sparkling eyes blab his heart’s malice
— Act 3, Scene 1, 

A sort of naughty persons, lewdly bent
— Act 2, Scene 1, 

The brilliant choice of the one small word "spurs" in this phrase conjures up the image of the fury embodied, dashing through a stormy forest, wrapped in a cloak, on a racing steed:

her fury needs no spurs
— Act 2, Scene 1, 

Better still, the play contains so many beautifully observed references to the natural world and glimpses of everyday life as it was at the time the playwright lived, each marvellously used to highlight some aspect of the play's action and its characters' psychology:

And as the butcher takes away the calf,
And binds the wretch, and beats it when it strains,
Bearing it to the bloody slaughterhouse,
Even so remorseless have they born him hence;
And as the dam runs lowing up and down,
Looking the way her harmless young one went,
And can do naught but wail her darling’s loss;
Even so myself bewails good Gloucester’s case

Now ‘tis the spring, and weeds are shallow-rooted;
Suffer them now, and they’ll o'ergrow the garden,
And choke the herbs for want of husbandry
— Act 3, Scene 1

Smooth runs the water where the brook is deep
— Act 3, Scene 1

The fox barks not when he would steal the lamb.
— Act 3, Scene 1

Thus are my blossoms blasted in the bud
And caterpillars eat my leaves away.
— Act 3, Scene 1 

Faster than springtime showers comes thought on thought
— Act 3, Scene 2

My brain, more busy than the labouring spider,
Weaves tedious snares to trap mine enemies
— Act 3, Scene 1 

Gloucester’s show
Beguiles him as the mournful crocodile
With sorrow snares relenting passengers,
Or as the snake rolled in a flow'ring bank
With shining chequered slough doth sting a child
That for the beauty thinks it excellent.
— Act 3, Scene 1 

And thinks he that the chirping of a wren,
By crying comfort from a hollow breast
Can chase away the first-conceived sound?
Hide not they poison with such sugared words
— Act 3 Scene 2 

The splitting rocks cow'red in the sinking sands
And would not dash me with their ragged sides
— Act 3, Scene 2 

The commons, like an angry hive of bees
That want their leader, scatter up and down
— Act 3, Scene 2

Who finds the heifer dead and bleeding fresh,
And sees fast by a butcher with an axe,
But will suspect ‘twas he that made the slaughter?
Who finds the partridge in the puttock’s nest
But may imagine how the bird was dead
Although the kite soar with unbloodied beak?
Even so suspicious is this tragedy.
— Act 3, Scene 2 

Thy mother took into her blameful bed
Some stern untutored churl, and noble stock
Was graffed with crabtree slip, whose fruit thou art,
And never of the Nevilles’ noble race.
— Act 3, Scene 2 

these dread curses, like the sun ‘gainst glass,
Or like an overcharged gun, recoil
And turn the force of them upon thyself.
— Act 3, Scene 2

Thus sometimes hath the brightest day a cloud;
   And after summer evermore succeeds
Barren winter, with his wrathful nipping cold
So cares and joys abound as seasons fleet.

pale as primrose with blood-drinking sighs
— Act 3, Scene 2 

Naturally, there are many superb turns of phrase:

Small curs are not regarded when they grin
Act 3, Scene 1 

For it is known we were but hollow friends
— Act 3, Scene 2

Who among us does not have the odd "hollow friend" - or isn't one?

There are also passages that are horribly pertinent to our own age:

these days are dangerous.
Virtue is choked with foul ambition,
And charity chased hence by rancour’s hand
Act 3, Scene 1, 

and there is a great deal of passion, violence and several fairly good Shakespearian insults:

Upon thy eyeballs murderous tyranny
Sits in grim majesty to fright the world.
Look not upon me, for thine eyes are wounding
Act 3, Scene 2

Fain would I go to chafe his paly lips
With twenty thousand kisses, and to drain
Upon his face an ocean of salt tears,
To tell my love unto his dumb, deaf trunk,
And with my fingers feel his hand unfeeling.
But all in vain are these mean obsequies
Act 3, Scene 2

See how the blood is settled in his face.
Oft have I seen a timely-parted ghost
Of ashy semblance, meagre, pale, and bloodless,
Being all descended to the labouring heart;
Who, in the conflict that it holds with death,
Attracts the same for aidance ‘gainst the enemy;
Which, with the heart, there cools, and ne'er returneth
To blush and beautify the cheek again.
But see, his face is black and full of blood;
His eyeballs further out than when he lived,
Staring full ghastly like a strangled man;
His hair upreared; his nostrils stretched with struggling;
His hands abroad displayed, as one that grasped
And tugged for life and was by strength subdued.
Look on the sheets. His hair, you see, is sticking;
His well-proportioned beard made rough and rugged
Like to the summer’s corn by tempest lodged.
It cannot be but he was murdered here.
The least of all these signs were probable.
Act 3, Scene 2

(I would be surprised if these observations are not medically accurate)’s a vengeful sword, rusted with ease
That shall be scoured in his rancorous heart
That slanders me with murder’s crimson badge.
Act 3, Scene 2,

send thy soul to hell,
Pernicious blood-sucker of sleeping men!
Act 3, Scene 2, 

lean-faced envy in her loathsome cave.
Act 3, Scene 2, 

Poison be their drink!
Gall, worse than gall, the daintiest that they taste!
Their sweetest shade a grove of cypress trees!
Their chiefest prospect murd'ring basilisks!
Their softest touch as smart as lizards’ stings!
Their music frightful as the serpent’s hiss,
And boding screch-owls make the consort full!
All the foul terrors in dark-seated hell -
Act 3, Scene 2

Furthermore, the play has the intriguing character of Margaret, wife of Henry VI. She is a very nasty woman, and it was therefore exciting to come upon a painting of her in the Louvre, where I went for the day on Sunday, since it was the first carfree day Paris has tried. It wasn't a terribly well-enforced carfree experience, (the Belgians do it better), but still it was a great deal nicer to walk about the streets than it is in Paris on any normal day. 

So here she is: Margaret d'Anjou, painted in around 1470 by someone in the Pays Bas du Sud, and now hanging in the Louvre:
Not a person to mess with as I think the next play I am about to embark on will prove - although I believe she will get her comeuppance there as well, leaving that thoughtful faced head severed horridly from that well-decorated neck. That is how things were once done.

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