Category Archives: Arresting Images

I’d like to post one of these arresting images a week, and walk you through exactly how Shakespeare takes an ordinary theme and puts it into words in such an extraordinary manner that for a moment, your mind is blown

Coriolanus knows how to deliver a threat!

Right now is that wonderful and stressful time before school when you realize that you have to move out of your house, move into somewhere else, buy new clothes, housewares, schoolbooks, say good-bye to your friends aaaand hopefully get a jump-start on one, at least one, assignment!

My project of choice is my grant application, due in November. I don’t expect to complete it in the next two weeks, but I figure that I’ll thank myself for the outline later. As I was reading over the notes I wrote circa November (and I thank myself for those, now!), I came across such a deliciously Arresting Image, spoken by Coriolanus.

A very hunky Kenneth Branagh as Coriolanus, in a 1992 production also starring Judi Dench

This is a lesser-known  Shakespearean play, one in which the title character is both the protagonist and his own worst enemy. And his country’s. A prominent warrior, Coriolanus refuses to display his war wounds to the masses, a common way to share Rome’s military victory with the rest of the nation. Perhaps a victim of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, the character does not wish to pander to the plebeians, and his rejection gets insulting, quickly. He is eventually exiled from his own country, and then teams up with his former enemy to get his revenge on Rome. Very teenage daddy issues. But a teenager couldn’t come up with a threat as gruesomely poetic is this:

‘Hence, rotten thing, or I shall shake thy bones / Out of thy garments’ (III.i.180-1)

I hope for your own sake that next time you hear this threat, it will be coming out of Ralph Fiennes’s mouth in his modern-dress  cinematic adaptation of the play, featuring none other than the interminable Vanessa Redgrave as Volumnia and the super-sexy Gerard Butler as the macho (and maybe a little camp) Aufidius.

Ahhh… I needed that. Now, back to work!

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Henry VI, Part 1

I love Shakespeare for the universal appeal of his writing. I love that someone from every single country in the world has probably read or watched a rendition of Hamlet. That being said, I also have a weakness for the obscure and esoteric so, in an effort to get back into ‘fighting shape’ before returning to academia in September, I decided to read a lesser-known Shakespeare play.

The play I chose is called Henry VI, Part I. The first of the king’s

The English Coat of Arms, adopted in 1198

eponymous trilogy begins to detail England’s loss of the French land that Henry V had pillaged. Before continuing, I’ll admit that I haven’t finished reading the play. Why? Because the language is so wonderful and I have to keep stopping to absorb it all! If I wrote a textbook, that would be the definition of an Arresting Image. After all this time, I still find it uncanny how one man can make a set of letters come to life in the form of a dramatic battle scene.

With that, here is my arresting image of the day:

Hark, countrymen! either renew the fight,
Or tear the lions out of England’s coat;
Renounce your soil, give sheep in lions’ stead:
Sheep run not half so treacherous from the wolf,
Or horse or oxen from the leopard,
As you fly from your oft-subdued slaves.

Spoken by the valiant Talbot, these lines abound in metaphors. Comparing human characteristics to animals makes the character types in the play (brave, chivalric, cowardly, two-timing) accessible to anyone. Shakespeare’s viewers didn’t have to have seen a lion or leopard to know that they are fast – it was the job of fairy tales to do that. Many of us have never seen battle, but we understand how Talbot is trying to motivate his soldiers based on metaphors that they could easily access. Genius. In a moment when he could have gotten carried away with the passions of war, Shakespeare took the time to pause and decide how to get his viewers onto the same page. What did he come up with? A successfully Arresting Image.

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Julius Caesar

Bear-baiting at the Globe Theatre: a form of entertainment where dogs attack and kill a bear

This week on ‘Arresting Images’: Julius Caesar!

This is one of Shakespeare’s plays that is regularly taught in high schools, so hopefully those of you who are not big Shakespeare enthusiasts will still be familiar with this one. I recently completed an internship with a Shakespeare education organization, and it was for an assignment with them that I first read it. I’m not going to lie, Reader: I find some plays quite tough on the first read. Love’s Labour’s Lost, for instance, is supposed to be a rhetorical masterpiece, but I haven’t been able to sink my teeth into it. This play was different — relatable. When I asked my internship co-ordinator why Julius Caesar was taught so regularly in high schools, he told me it’s because it can be taught as a lesson in Roman history Sure, that’s convenient, but I think it does the deeper issues an injustice. The reason why I am so enthralled is because it is so relevant to political issues not just then, but throughout history, right through to the high school politics and celebrity drama of today.

Julius Caesar is a play about a conspiracy against Caesar, led by a group of his minions who think that the conqueror is too ambitious. When one character, Casca, tells his companions Cassius and Brutus about Caesar’s celebrated return from battle, they concentrate less on the fact that Caesar was offered kingship but physically rejected the crown three times, and focused more on the way ‘he was very loath to lay his / fingers off it.’ In their minds, he pretended to reject the crown but desperately wanted it in his heart. And that, for them, was too ambitious. In the standard style of warriors, you can imagine that they didn’t pull Caesar aside for a chat about political strategy. Instead, Cassius, Brutus, and their gang of conspirators planned this great leader’s murder as a way to save his soul from his supposed ambition. Still with me?

Bringing us up to this week’s Arresting Image, we witness the conspirators’ summit, where they discuss who they’re going to kill and why. While Cassius maintains that they should kill Caesar’s ‘Number Two’, Mark Antony, Brutus reminds Cassius that their purpose is noble and spiritual rather than strategic. But here’s where the linguistic acrobatics come in: the Romans practiced what is called rhetoric, defined as the study of the most effective use of language. This play is the most impressive exercise of rhetoric, as it follows different characters convincing those around them to change their moral outlooks, essentially redefining right and wrong. And this is what Brutus says:

Let us be sacrificers, but not butchers, Caius.
We all stand up against the spirit of Caesar;
And in the spirit of men there is no blood:
O, that we then could come by Caesar’s spirit,
And not dismember Caesar! But, alas,
Caesar must bleed for it! And, gentle friends,
Let’s kill him boldly, but not wrathfully;
Let’s carve him as a dish fit for the gods,
Not hew him as a carcass fit for hounds:
And let our hearts, as subtle masters do,
Stir up their servants to an act of rage,
And after seem to chide ’em. This shall make
Our purpose necessary and not envious:
Which so appearing to the common eyes,
We shall be call’d purgers, not murderers.
And for Mark Antony, think not of him;
For he can do no more than Caesar’s arm
When Caesar’s head is off.

Ahhhh. A speech like that is the reason why I prefer to read Shakespeare rather than watch it performed. After reading those words, I can’t just move forward; I need to be able to take pause, think, and enjoy the way the Romans always propose a better alternative: not bodily dismemberment, but dismembering the ambition within Caesar’s spirit; not butchery, but mercy; not six of one, but half a dozen of the other! The political speechwriters of today can learn a lot from these Roman wordsmiths!

I’m sorry, reader, if my choices of Arresting Images prove too morbid, but perhaps that’s what aligns me so well with Shakespeare. Living in London in the 1600s meant that he regularly witnessed plague-ridden corpses being piled up on the streets, watched public executions, walked across the Thames to see the decapitated heads of political traitors (the likes of Brutus and Cassius or, in their minds, Caesar) mounted on pikes at the Tower. Shakespeare even caught the odd bear-baiting at the Globe Theatre itself. Re-reading the words ‘Let’s carve him as a dish fit for the gods, / Not hew him as a carcass fit for hounds,’ we can tell that these bear-baiting matches were a likely inspiration to Shakespeare, acting as  an animal parallel to Caesar’s backstabbing at the Forum.

So think of it this way, Reader: Shakespeare was writing about one of the greatest conquerors in history. Sure, this play might have been performed for the royals; sure these words sound a bit difficult at first, but they’re so worthy of comprehension! And who were the people who sunk their teeth into the lofty rhetoric? The people who understood it firsthand: the commoners, ‘groundlings’, who paid for cheap standing tickets at the Globe and returned to the scene of the crime for a good ol’ bear-baiting, one of the earliest forms of commercial theatre!

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Henry V

Welcome back, Reader! Today’s entry will be the first in my series, titled ‘Arresting Images.’ This first image is one of my all-time favourites, coming from Henry V. Now, I know that some might brush away Henry V as lost in the mix of the other Henrys (of which there are 6), neglected in favour of reading a more notable history play like Richard III, or a ‘classic’ like Romeo and Juliet or Othello. Well, Reader, I can’t tell you how highly I recommend this play simply because it is more directly relevant to our lives today than those classics I mentioned. Why? Three words: War on Terror.

This play opens with two high priests looking for a reason to invade France, a clever strategy which will distract the King from sacking the church’s hefty coffers. They search through ecclesiastical history and find that the French crown cannot be transferred through the female line, which is how the current French king got it. If it had been passed through the male line, as per ‘Salic Law,’ the English line would have taken the French throne, or at very least some French land. This theory, however sexist, would be good and well if it did not contradict the grounds for Henry’s own rule, which the clergy conveniently disregard.

This hypocrisy already begins to remind me of the military turmoil of the past decade: who were the Americans posed to fight? The Afghans, the Taliban, the Iraqis, or terrorists across the Middle East? Hadn’t the American government contributed nuclear weapons to Iraq only a decade before? I don’t know enough on this topic, but I can there’s a fishy smell of ambivalence (aka, figuratively speaking out of both sides of one’s mouth), a fishiness that Shakespeare exposes in England’s forefather in Henry V.

Shakespeare uses this play as to demonstrate the uncomfortable and disconcerting nature of an ambivalent rule, showing at once:

–         the benefits and drawbacks to jingoism

–         the unity and divisiveness between the four nations of Great Britain, and their endeavour to fight an external enemy to maintain their own unity

–         the bravery and cowardice of both kings and commoners

and the issue we’re dealing with:

–         the injustice and justification of expending lives (both common and noble) for a flimsy, though supposedly noble cause

At first, Henry displays the appropriate reluctance to send his country to war, telling the clergymen:

God forbid, my dear and faithful lord,
That you should fashion, wrest, or bow your reading,
Or nicely charge your understanding soul
With opening titles miscreate, whose right
Suits not in native colours with the truth;
For God doth know how many now in health
Shall drop their blood in approbation
Of what your reverence shall incite us to.
Therefore take heed how you impawn our person,
How you awake our sleeping sword of war

The king’s democratic, pacifistic spirit lasts but a few lines. When the French prince’s messenger comes with the gag-gift of tennis balls, an insulting jab at the carelessness of his youthful alter-ego ‘Hal’, Henry’s sleeping sword awakens with a vengeance. Soon enough, he has lobbied the four nations: English, Irish, Welsh, and Scots, to fight for his ‘cause’.

Let me tell you, Reader, just like George W. Bush in visiting bases in his military fatigues, King Henry feels pretty darn good about himself for having united his people, mobilizing them against a common enemy. On the night before battle, he disguises himself in order to personally get a feel for how his soldiers are faring. When the common soldiers suggest to their hooded visitor that they hope the cause that they fight for blindly is at least honourable, worthy of having amassed such a huge army instead of being a petty fight that the king could have resolved himself, the disguised king is insulted. One soldier, Williams, puts the stranger in his place, giving him (and us), a glimpse of the same uncertainty that the king himself once had. Yet, Williams speaks with a stronger resolve, built on the knowledge of what’s to come. Shakespeare writes him this speech with such vivid imagery that it reminds us that war is not a fun rainy-day game of RISK, but rather a harsh, painful reality:

But if the cause be not good, the king himself hath
a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and
arms and heads, chopped off in battle, shall join
together at the latter day and cry all ‘We died at
such a place;’ some swearing, some crying for a
surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind
them, some upon the debts they owe, some upon their
children rawly left. I am afeard there are few die
well that die in a battle; for how can they
charitably dispose of any thing, when blood is their
argument? Now, if these men do not die well, it
will be a black matter for the king that led them to
it; whom to disobey were against all proportion of
subjection.

This speech gives me all the reasons I need to love Shakespeare. Let me break it down for you:

–         Shakespeare (William S.) is giving the common soldier (Williams) a voice. At the end of the play, the king takes note of the death of fellow nobleman, but worries not about the souls of the commoners. Shakespeare gives this commoner a name and a voice and something so important to say. Never assume that Shakespeare was only a writer for kings: his works say something to everyone.

–         He exposes the hypocrisy of kings by showing that the king’s single moral moment is only good in theory, but worthless in practice. It’s one thing to question the value and virtue of the monarchy today, but in his time, it was a crime punishable by death. Shakespeare tip-toes the line of treason, and deserves props for his gutsiness.

–         Even if this play didn’t give us a stencil outline of the young, beautiful, American (and Canadian, and British, etc.) lives that George W. Bush threw away in pursuit of his unattainable ideal, Shakespeare shows us to question the powers that be. We vote for them because we want to trust them, but to give our lives for their cause is another story. We may, as individuals and as part of our nations, love our countries, but we mustn’t expect our leaders to consider us as individuals when they make decisions. A painful truth, but a truth indeed.

…And that’s all for this week! Please feel free to write in with comments, and especially questions: if you need me to clarify something, don’t be afraid to ask!

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Arresting Images

The grammar school where Shakespeare learned how to say what he said

Why do I love reading Shakespeare? Why is it mandatory to read Shakespeare in most North American schools? Why has the rest of the world taken to translating Shakespeare?

I’m going to give you my answer, Reader, and will continue referring back to it through the course of this blog.

My answer: the mind-blowing interplay between what he writes about and how he writes about it.

What he writes about:

–       passion

–       love

–       jealousy

–       sex

–       friendships

–       ambition

–       betrayal

–       death

–       grief

…and so forth. These are issues that we all grapple with at some point in our lives. Shakespeare writes about issues we know, so we can sympathize with his characters and think, ‘How would I deal with this issue if it happened to me?’ and go further to empathize by comparing how we have dealt with these issues in our own pasts. The enjoyment we get out of this subject matter, therefore, is entirely narcissistic, and why not? Shakespeare writes about issues we can relate to, which should ideally make reading his work less scary to take on. He’s not reinventing the wheel. We’ve seen the wheel, driven on that wheel, gotten into the same crashes as his wheels.

What makes reading Shakespeare so scary? His wheel is going in the same direction as ours, but is constructed quite differently. It’s like driving a car in standard: you can’t imagine learning how to do it and doing it without crashing, but once you get a hang of it, you realize that driving standard brings a new grace to driving. You have a whole new control of the vehicle and, from then on, assess the roads around you thinking ‘I can tackle this road so much better in standard!’

Lost? Let me bring you back to my point, Reader. Shakespeare writes about every day issues in the most arresting way. In Shakespeare’s time, students went to school to learn Latin language and Latin literature – English literature as a genre had barely sprung its roots, so they found their amusement and mental exercises in translating these works from Latin to English and back again, each time trying to use the most arresting images and turns of phrase in the English language in order to do the original texts justice. Many people like to point out that Shakespeare was not university educated, but the fact of the matter is that he was doing these challenging exercises in elementary school. Therefore, just as in evaluating the roads as a newly-taught standard driver assessing the roads in terms of gears and clutches, Shakespeare saw the images in the world around him and chose not the easiest way to say something, but the way that would provide you with the most arresting image in your head. The image so true to life, so true to the imagination, that it brought both Queens and prostitutes, lawyers and beggars, out to see his plays.

So, Reader, if my explanation still lives you in the dark, that’s okay, because the only way you can understand what I mean is by reading these passages. As much as I love seeing Shakespeare performed dramatically, the reason why I remain a steadfast reader of the Bard is because the way he writes stops me in my tracks every time. You cannot press pause on a play (although you can with a film!), and Shakespeare deserves that time to stop and just contemplate these most amazing ways he says what he says.

Ideally, I’d like to post one of these arresting images a week, and walk you through exactly how Shakespeare takes an ordinary theme and puts it into words in such an extraordinary manner that for a moment, your mind is blown. In addition to that, I will also be posting about critics and books that have illuminated the way I see Shakespeare, along with productions, and specific actors who, through their performances, bring Shakespeare’s texts to light in ways that I had no personally conceived. The beauty of Shakespeare scholarship being such a large body of scholarship is that, while reading is private, this study is collaborative. So please feel free to post your comments, questions, objections, and so forth, and we can blaze an amazing Shakespearean discourse right here in the blogosphere!

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