Posts Tagged ‘shakespeare’

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Over the years I have observed two kinds of singleness. Here’s a quick meditation on either. Feel free to add what you think. The two are neither mutually exclusive nor comprehensive.

Firstly, there is singleness in general, as Cat Stevens sings, “Another Saturday night and I ain’t got nobody.” Singleness in general is being in the state of singleness with no direction towards a particular person. It can be real chill, freeing, and comfortable, especially if the single has no great desire to make anything romantically happen any time soon. This singleness is perfect for taking a break from any prospect of love. Where singleness in general is directed romantically, the single dwells in possibility. The world is yours, oyster. How long will it last though? With no particular, the single is thrust into the possibility of the boring and everyday. Though the single pines for the transcendent in a human subject, in drifting through the totality of romantic possibilities and having no overwhelming interest in any of them, they are confronted with the banality of love, that is, they desire to go into a relationship yet with a considerable blow to their expectations.

Secondly, there is singleness in particular, the most beautiful and dangerous kind. Centred on a particular person, singleness in particular begins and ends with passion. In passion it seeks to be with someone, but when this seeking fails, in passion it must follow a wholly other path, whether one that redirects the “love” which it took part in to a new, non-romantic subject, or one that inverts its enamouredness to revenge itself on the world. So the English poet, John Donne, when his wife died penned these lines:

Since she whom I loved hath paid her last debt
To Nature, and to hers, and my good is dead,
And her soul early into heaven ravishèd,
Wholly on heavenly things my mind is set.

(Holy Sonnet 17)

Since his love has gone to heaven, heaven becomes his love. Later, Kierkegaard was devastated when he broke off his engagement with Regine Olsen, and proceeded to beat a sizable dent into the surface of Western philosophy, largely influenced by his continual dealing with the emotional aftermath. Although there is no obvious sense of a particular here, the famous opening soliloquy in Shakespeare’s Richard III details love’s inversion:

I, that am curtail’d of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deformed, unfinish’d, sent before my time
Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them;
Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity:
And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.

He goes on to say how he will set his two brothers against each other, so that he may attain the throne. He makes clear the connection between his ugliness (and therefore inopportunity for romantic love) and ambition for power. Finally, without saying too much in case you’re yet to watch Breaking Bad, at the beginning of Season 3, Jesse Pinkman claims his identity as the “bad guy,” somewhat in connection with his singleness in particular:


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Sonnet 29

When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possess’d,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remember’d such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

* * *

I haven’t read Shakespeare for a while but I rediscovered this one recently. If you’re unfamiliar with Shakespeare, not only did he write an impressive set of plays with piercing psychological and existential insights into humanity, he also wrote 150 sonnets on love, 150 alluding to the number of psalms in the Bible. Above is sonnet 29, which asserts the narrator’s consolation in love when jealously despising what other people have.

The first line determines the problem: The narrator lacks some fortune (possibly material wealth, or even basic means), and is somewhat looked down on by others around him.¹ This leads to sorrow (2), prayers with the accompanying feeling of being unheard (3), self-debasement (4), and jealously assessing those around him (5-8). There’s possibly a pun on ‘rich’ (5; cf. ‘wealth’ in line 13), although I’m unsure to what extent Shakespeare’s use coincides with our modern association with material affluence. The narrator is jealous of others because of their friends (6), and skills and freedoms (7), to the point that it undermines everything he himself enjoys (8).

When the narrator thinks on his love (9-10), he is like the lark (a type of bird) who sings to heaven in the midst of an imperfect world (11-12). To get to the depth of the metaphor here, Shakespeare’s classical sense of earth = imperfect (bad?) and heaven = perfect (good?) needs to be felt. The sonnet ends with an affirmation of the narrator’s love over the utmost of material and social capital in the metaphor of the king.²

This sonnet is in keeping with Shakespeare’s others which contrast worldly imperfections with the perfection of love. In Sonnet 66 the narrator desires death in light of social evils such as the poor having nothing and the rich having everything, rape, censorship, and general abuses of power, yet concludes he couldn’t because “to die, I leave my love alone.” Peter Rollins said it like this:

“If one believes that the world is meaningful, yet does not love, they cannot help but experience the world as meaningless. Yet if one believes that the world is meaningless yet loves, that person cannot help but experience their world as meaningful.”

Here, love is not affected by any externalities but is of primary importance when assessing life’s value. Regardless of what the narrator experiences, nothing can take away his sole joy, which is love. But maybe this is too simplistic a way of reading the sonnet, and especially assessing love. Here love is reduced to a consolation. Everything else sucks but at least you have love. Compare Sonnet 130: The narrator, quite humourously, and  in defiance of the history of poetry, humanises his female subject by denying her any deific qualifications:

I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground

Just on the side, I looked up 'Aphrodite' on Google Images and one of the recommended searches was 'Aphrodite with clothes on.'

Just on the side, I looked up ‘Aphrodite’ on Google Images and one of the recommended searches was ‘Aphrodite with clothes on.’

Yet after this he concludes she is just as good as any woman whose devotee has cast elaborate, poetic, ‘false’ constructions upon. What becomes apparent is that the humanity, even imperfection, of the narrator’s subject is an essential component of their love. She is still ‘as rare’ as any woman who ostensibly commands goddess-like features. The same idea can be found in sonnet 29. Such is the ‘wealth’ of the narrator’s love that the narrator would not swap his state for that of kings (13-14). Of course, ‘state’ here can be read as the state of love removed from any other which-ways of material or social circumstance, but who’s to say the exact nature of the narrator’s relationship would improve or at least remain if he had ‘fortune’ and the attention of other ‘men’s eyes?’ In this sense the narrator’s love is not a just a mere consolation to his circumstances but his circumstances are essential to that love itself. His love becomes a reflection on his circumstances which would not be possible without them.

* * *

¹This quick analysis provides possible parallels from Shakespeare’s life.

²Probably primarily material. Although kings would have enjoyed all the pomp and ceremony of the court they would have had to deal with their subjects! Additionally, being a king did not necessarily meant you had any special ‘art’ or skill (7), but then again Shakespeare may be only construing ‘art’ as valuable as it is a means to freedom.

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This is at once a necessary break from overly serious posts and a tribute to The Inky Fool, a fascinating blog on the roots of words and phrases in the English language. What follows is a list of words and their definitions as I have come across them in my reading. Some are still used legitimately today, whereas others are usually only used for poetic reference to a time past:

1. wont: accustomed: “My lord, the roynish clown, at whom so oft /Your Grace was wont to laugh, is also missing” — Shakespeare

2. wanton: frolicsome/sexually unrestrained: “Wanton as youthful goats, wild as young bulls” — Shakespeare

3. thee/thou/thy/thine: you/you/your/yours: thee is objective whereas thou is subjective: he ate me; I ate him; thou ate me; I ate thee: there is no differentiation between you (objective) and you (subjective) in modern English: thine can function as your when preceding a vowel, like the difference between a and an: thy son; thine own son.

4. whither/whence: where (destination)/where (origin): “Whence they came? Whither they went?” — John Bunyan: see also hither/hence, thither/thence

5. suffer: permit: “But Jesus said, Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven” — Matthew 19:14, KJV

6. wherefore: why/for what reason: “The Brooks laugh louder when I come— /The Breezes madder play; /Wherefore mine eye thy silver mists, /Wherefore, Oh Summer’s Day?” — Emily Dickinson

7. yclept: named: pronounced ee-KLEPT: “But come, thou goddess fair and free. /In heaven ycleped Euphrosyne” — John Milton

8. Phoebus/Diana: Greek or Roman names for the gods, used in reference to the sun and moon, respectively: “Phoebus, arise! /And paint the sable skies /With azure, white and red” — William Drummond

9. divers: various : pronounced DAHY-vers: as opposed to diverse, which means varied: “To another the working of miracles; to another prophecy; to another discerning of spirits; to another divers kinds of tongues; to another the interpretation of tongues” — 1Corinthians 12:10, KJV

10. gird: surround/bind with a belt: “Let your loins be girded about, and your lights burning” — Luke 12:35, KJV

11. weregild: compensation money for someone murdered: were, meaning man, can be seen also in werewolf: “”This I will have as weregild for my father, and my brother” — Isildur in Lord of the Rings, taking the ring as payment for the loss of family members

12. lovingkindness: kindness motivated by love: “Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy lovingkindness: according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions” — Psalm 51:1, KJV

13. myrtle: a type of plant: this word is the same here as it is used in modern times: however, as someone up-grown  in New Zealand and experiencing English literature as something largely foreign, these factors have necessitated my inclusion of the word: I would also include something like rhododendron to further indicate my ignorance of botany, if only it was frequently found in the poetry I have read

14. alack: crap? mild curse/expression of sorrow: “Thou bring’st me happiness and peace, son John; /But health, alack, with youthful wings is flown /From this bare wither’d trunk” — Shakespeare

15. Muse: one of nine Greek mythological goddesses from whom are sourced all artistic inspiration: I hope the Holy Spirit will lead me as a Muse: Shakespeare assigns the young man of his sonnets as his own Muse: read about it here

16. swain: country boy/male lover: “Haply some hoary-headed swain may say, /Oft have we seen him at the peep of dawn /Brushing with hasty steps the dews away, /To meet the sun upon the upland lawn” — Thomas Gray

17. twain: two: although the usage is slightly different: if anyone can enlighten me, please do: “For both, for both my love is so immense, /I feel my heart is cut in twain for them” — Keats

18. methinks: I think: “Wherein your father flourished, yet by you,
Madam, methinks I see him living yet” — Milton

19. o’er: over: apostrophes were widely used to reduce syllables and therefore meet the metrical requirements of poetry: so you also find e’er (ever), ne’er (never), and awkward deletions such as ev’n (even) and heav’n (heaven): I still don’t know how to pronounce a v and an n so close to each other with no vowel to mediate: also, you will find that since the e in the ed ending was pronounced, poets often omitted this to make words shorter: eg. walk’d: a few words in English still have this pronunciation: learned (adjective form), blessed (adjective form, possibly only in ecclesiastical contexts?), and crooked (I have never heard anyone say ‘crookd’)

20. behest: command: “Michael, this my behest have thou in charge, /Take to thee from among the Cherubim /Thy choice of flaming Warriors” — Milton

21. dun: grey, dull: “My mistress’s eyes are nothing like the sun; /Coral is far more red than her lip’s red; /If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun” — Shakespeare’s unflattering account of his mistress is a landmark reaction against the deification of women by their male poet lovers: this not only paves the way for modern realism, but in some obscure, and possibly offensive, way you can use this sonnet to say, “I love you just the way you are”

22. connexion: connection: the alternative British spelling is actually not that archaic, still being in modern usage: it’s awesome, actually, how as a New Zealander I can interchangeably use words such as burnt and burned, spelt and spelled, learnt and learned: kist and blest, among others, have sadly fallen out of use

23. quoth: said (used before the speaker): “Quoth Peter, leaping from his seat,
‘There is some plot against me laid;'”– Wordsworth

24. ere: before: “O thou sword of the Lord, how long will it be ere thou be quiet? put up thyself into thy scabbard, rest, and be still” — Jeremiah 47:6, KJV

25. two-and-twenty: twenty-two: my age: the construction can be used for any number (I think): Shakespeare plays on it: “What’s to come is still unsure: /In delay there lies no plenty; /Then come kiss me, sweet-and-twenty! /Youth’s a stuff will not endure”

26. threescore and ten: seventy: a single score is twenty: “The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away” Psalm 90:10, KJV

27. fie: expresses annoyance: pronounced FAHY: possibly cognate to fffffffffffffffffffffuuuuuuuuu: “O, fie, fie, fie! /Thy sin’s not accidental, but a trade” — Shakespeare

28. irksome: irritating: “But this swift travel scorns the company /Of irksome change, or threats from saddening power” — Wordsworth

29. hark: listen: “Hark! the herald angels sing /’Glory to the newborn King /Peace on earth and mercy mild, /God and sinners reconciled!'” — famous Christmas carol by Charles Wesley

30. hillock: diminutive of hill: “A graceless hillock rose too near mine town center. No wonder thou wert victorious! I shalt abdicate” — CPU resigning in AOE II: note the use of mine is probably incorrect as it does not precede a vowel

31. hoary: grey or white with age: there is a word with the exact same pronunciation used in New Zealand English to describe something either warn out, low-quality or a bit dirty: whorey? but I’m not sure how to spell it: “What are garlands and crowns to the brow that is wrinkled? ‘Tis but as a dead flower with May-dew besprinkled: Then away with all such from the head that is hoary! What care I for the wreaths that can only give glory?” — Lord Byron

32. sylvan: pertaining to the wood: “Sweet Ruth! and could you go with me /My helpmate in the woods to be, /Our shed at night to rear; /Or run, my own adopted bride, /A sylvan huntress at my side, /And drive the flying deer” — Wordsworth

33. beeves: the plural of ‘beef’. Wordsworth uses it, along with kine, to refer to cows: “Let beeves and home-bred kine partake /The sweets of Burn-mill meadow” — Wordsworth

34. yon: in the distance, yonder: “How exquisite the scents /Snatch’d from yon bean-field!” — Samuel Taylor Coleridge

35. vicissitude: change: pronounced vi-SIS-i-tyood: “There is a Cave /Within the Mount of /God, fast by his Throne, /Where light and darkness in perpetual round /Lodge and dislodge by turns, which makes through Heav’n /Grateful vicissitude, like Day and Night” — Milton

36. bonny: pretty, comely: I think it’s related to the name: “It’s not for fight that I came here, but friendship for to show. /Give me one kiss from your bonny, bonny bride and away from you I go” — The Green Wedding, English folk song

37. livelong: entire: “I’ve been workin’ on the railroad, /All the livelong day. /I’ve been workin’ on the railroad, /Just to pass the time away” — American folk song

38. concupiscence: sexual desire: “And what was it that I delighted in, but to love, and be loved? but I kept not the measure of love, of mind to mind, friendship’s bright boundary: but out of the muddy concupiscence of the flesh, and the bubblings of youth, mists fumed up which beclouded and overcast my heart, that I could not discern the clear brightness of love from the fog of lustfulness” — Augustine’s Confessions, translated by E. B. Pusey

39. perturbation: a disturbance: it may still be in usage but it’s not one I come across often: although Gandhi has made use of it: “Richard, thy wife, that wretched Anne thy wife, /That never slept a quiet hour with thee, /Now fills thy sleep with perturbations ” — Shakespeare

40. betwixt: between: my main source implies this is still in modern usage in parts of America: it is widely used in a lot of poetry I have read: “Of all the days that’s in the week /I dearly love but one day, /And that’s the day that comes betwixt /A Saturday and Monday” — Henry Carey: the context of the poem suggests that but should be read as just, because he is not excluding but speaking highly of Sunday: I dearly love just one day

41. erstwhile/whilom: former: “He conquered al the regne [reign?] of Femenye, /That whilom [fomerly] was ycleped [named] Scithia, /And weddede the queene Ypolita, /And broghte hir hoom [home] with hym in his contree [country], /With muchel glorie and greet solempnytee [solemnity?]” — Chaucer

42. prithee: pray thee, please: “The tidy breezes with their brooms /Sweep vale, and hill, and tree! /Prithee, my pretty housewives! /Who may expected be?” — Emily Dickinson

43. yea: yes: pronounced YAY: “But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil” — Matthew 5:37, KJV: Can also be used to mean indeed: “Now the chief priests, and elders, and all the council, sought false witness against Jesus, to put him to death; but found none: yea, though many false witnesses came, yet found they none” — Matthew 26:59-60, KJV

44. tarry: wait: “O let us be married! too long we have tarried: /But what shall we do for a ring?” — The Owl and the Pussycat by Edward Lear

45. chanticleer: rooster: “A flippant fly upon the pane; /A spider at his trade again; /An added strut in chanticleer; /A flower expected everywhere” — Emily Dickinson

46. wight: person, sometimes creature: In the poem Beowulf it is used to refer to the beast Grendel: “That heathen wight was right ready: fierce and reckless, he snatched thirty thanes from their slumber, then sped homeward, carrying his spoils and roaring over his prey as he sought his lair”

47. honey-tongued: sweet-speaking, persuasive:”This is the flower that smiles on every one, /To show his teeth as white as whale’s bone; /And consciences, that will not die in debt, /Pay him the due of honey-tongued Boye” — Shakespeare

48. wax: increase in size: “a full eye will wax hollow” — Shakespeare

49. horned: crescent-shaped: “There’s tempest in yon horned moon, /And lightning in yon cloud” — Allan Cunningham

54: oft/oftentimes: often: depending on metrical requirements, you can now use often for one, two or three syllables: “Oft did the harvest to their sickle yield, /Their furrow oft the stubborn glebe has broke; /How jocund did they drive their team afield! /How bow’d the woods beneath their sturdy stroke!” — Thomas Gray

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