The Tempest: A Tale of Man, Nature, and Freedom

I have the feeling Shakespeare has been shadowing me lately and writing his plays based on things I’m thinking about. You laugh, but think about this.

I’ve been reading the Tempest to prepare for discussions with the apprentices. So this morning, I read Act 5, and I come across lines like this:

Ariel: If you now beheld them/ Your affections would become tender.

Prospero: Dost thou think so, spirit?

Ariel: Mine would, were I human.

Ah yes, he’s been thinking about next year’s conference theme: What is man?

But that’s not all. He goes on:

Prospero:
And mine shall.
Hast thou, which are but air, a touch, a feeling
of their afflictions, and shall not myself,
One of their kind, that relish all as sharply
Passion as they, be kindlier moved than thou art?
Though with their high wrongs I am struck to th’ quick,
Yet with my nobler reason ‘gainst my fury
Do I take part. The rarer action is
In virtue than in vengeance. They being penitent
The sole drift of my purpose doth extend
Not a frown further. Go, release them, Ariel.
My charms I’ll break, their senses I’ll restore,
And they shall be themselves.

I think that we fail to realize how much Shakespeare’s philosophy and ethic enabled his poetry. Shakespeare was a wise man, a man of such profound insight that his literature tempts people like Harold Bloom to turn it into a secular literature.

He knew human nature. Notice the language he used, some of which would now be considered archaic because it does not reduce man to something kindless (unkind).

“Shall not myself, one of their kind… be kindlier moved than thou art?”

In other words, should I not, sharing the same nature/kind with these men, act as one who shares a nature/kind with them. Should I not act humanely, humanly?

Do you see how very high a conception of humanity Ariel has? “Mine would, were I human.” Where does it come from? Until this day, he’s only known two humans, Prospero and his daughter Miranda.

It reminds me of Miranda’s words when she sees the nobly dressed dukes and kings later in Act 5: “How beauteous mankind is. Oh brave new world that has such people in’t.”

She’s young and naive and has enjoyed the loving affection of a good father. By brave, she means wonderful, imaginative, splendid – bedecked in wonder might be a fitting expression.

She had not endured what her father had. He replies to her awe: “‘Tis new to thee.” He is less impressed.

And no wonder, he had been betrayed by a brother, “that entertained ambition, expelled remorse and nature.” Nevertheless, to this brother he says, “I do forgive thee, unnatural though thou art.”

Ariel and Miranda are full of admiration for humans. Prospero less so. And yet, Prospero respects them more. He has one goal in mind, expressed a few different ways.

Line 36: Penitence.
Line 40: They shall be themselves
Line 197: To “requite them with a good thing” which restores a just order
And then, the very last word of the play, at the end of the last two lines:

As you from crimes would pardoned be
Let your indulgence set me free

In other words, the purpose of Prospero’s project (line 1) is that these human beings would realign themselves to nature and thus be set free.

Ironically, perhaps, it takes something more than nature to achieve that end.

Read the Tempest with these three themes in mind (but just read it for the pleasure of it) and you will be drawn deeper and deeper into truths that will open your eyes and, while they will “take the ear strangely” you will “be wise hereafter, and seek for grace.”

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A Piece of Work

To prepare for the 2011 conference, may I suggest you read Hamlet and watch at least two versions of it. I like Brannagh, but it has useless and gratuitous and utterly distracting pornographic shots thrown in. Don’t watch it without some means to avert your gaze from their shame, as any gentleman or lady does when he sees it.

I also like Zefferelli’s Hamlet (Mel Gibson) but it leaves out pretty crucial elements and is overly Freudian in its interpretation.

Hamlet is a series of magnificent set-pieces, soliloquies and discussions that penetrate the inner chambers and ventricles of the heart while undulating the spectator between heaven and earth, none more, perhaps than the scene shown in the two versions below. “What a piece of work is a man.”

Zefferreli:

Brannagh

Compare this with 3:1 (To be or not to be) and 4:4 (What is a man) both of which you can see on YouTube. You can see a bit of a progression of Hamlet’s attitude to man, and therefore to action, but he’ll still rise and fall a few more times before his final fall (or is it a rise?).

As a devotee of Hamlet as the greatest play ever written, I crave your thoughts, reflections, and insights on these scenes.

What Sayest Thou?

There are few pleasures in life greater than watching someone you mentor grow. Buck Holler joined the CiRCE apprenticeship far beyond any need for me to mentor him, and yet he has embraced my instruction with an eagerness that shows why he hardly needed it. It is my great pleasure to introduce Buck to you as our newest Quiddity author, from whom you will be hearing much in the coming aeon. This is Buck’s third post, and those of you who visit often can already see why I’m so happy to have him on board.

Something Buck doesn’t mention in what follows is that the kids he’s teaching are not yet in high school! With that, over to Buck:

The question I ask my students with nearly every book we read is, “Who most rightly acts?”

We recently finished reading act one of Julius Caesar, and that question divided my class of 18 into three groups. (I will narrate their replies as accurately as possible.)

The majority of students sided with the Sooth Sayer because he simply gives Caesar the truth without force or going overboard.  He gets to the point and allows Caesar to do what he will.

The rest of the class divided those favoring Brutus and Cassius from 2 students who chose Mark Antony and one who supported Caesar.  What occurred was beautiful.  I will share two particular highlights that I enjoyed.

A Cassius supporter challenged the Caesar fan by asking, “Which is the greater injustice” — I love that lead — “killing someone, or destroying something that took hundreds of years to build?”  This student then drew the analogy of a man seeking to destroy the Vatican.

Another student who supported Brutus drew a parallel to the sacrifice of Jesus calling on the necessity at times of a sacrifice.  The young lady supporting Caesar replied, “I need to think.”  Ah, I love it.  I told her, “Thinking is good; it is all right to think.”  Approximately five minutes later she returned with this reply.  “The difference between Jesus and Caesar is that Jesus knew he was being sacrificed and Caesar did not.  If you truly love someone, you tell him the truth, help him, and even allow him to make the decision of what to do with his life.”

Then class was over.

So, who most rightly acts?  What sayest thou?

Your theory of writing

People of a more practical bent will sometimes suggest they don’t have a theory. Others argue that theory is a distraction or isn’t important.

Those positions (each a caricature in itself) hold a view of theory that arises from a reaction to the overly academic approach we take to writing. The great temptation for any teacher or school is to isolate what happens in the school or classroom from the rest of life and then to exalt it over things outside the school or classroom.

When schools do that, people outside the schools can overreact the other way and deny the importance of what happens in the school. And to the extent that the school overvalued itself, the anti-school people will be right.

The only value of education is what it actually accomplishes in the soul and for the life of the student.

All of which is preamble to indicate the unnecessary tension between theory and practice that I pointed to in my previous post.

My thesis here is simple: since, as we have perhaps already established, we all have a writing theory, that theory forms our expectations and practices as writers and teachers. 

The cosequence of my thesis is that the theory we hold, therefore, effects the quality of our instruction and the degree of our mastery of the art.

For example, if a student thinks that writing is a great mystery, a gift descending from the gods, he will practice accordingly. He may pray a lot if he wants to write well, but he won’t try to exercise a discipline he doesn’t believe exists.

Put in that caricature, that position might seem absurd, but that caricature expresses rather nicely the unconscious presupposition I held as a high school student. It’s easy to see why, because to this day the achievements of the great poets leave me breathless and, to be perfectly honest, often envious.

How was Shakespeare able to write the way he did? How could Chaucer so continually throw out lines with such grace and subtlety? How could John Donne hide so many, many layers of meaning in the 14 lines of a sonnet.

It’s no wonder that Homer begins his epics with the words “Sing goddess…” and Milton, “Sing heavenly muse.”

And both were, I’m certain, quite genuine in their appeal. Their theory of poetry led them to call for divine help.

So does mine.

Shakespeare seems not to have held such a theory. He was, one might say, a more secular poet, certainly than Homer or Milton, if not Virgil (Arms and the man I sing).

Behind those prayers lay a theology and a cosmology and an anthropology that inform every line of the poets’ work.

The absence of such lines in contemporary poetry indicate a different theology, cosmology, and anthropology.

When a person writes, he comes to the task with beliefs about how important writing is, the source of the power to do it, and how one practices it. Writing workshops and classes are not the place to teach such things. They already embody them in their modes and structures.

For example, the typical school class assumes that writing is taught by a text book through exercises and that pretty well anybody can teach it with the right text book. Administrative structures and assessment expectations pretty well demand this theory, if it isn’t in place ahead of time.

What I mean is that, given how we run our schools and hold them accountable, we need to believe that writing, like everything else in school, simply needs to be administered to the student in the right dosage. Then a standardized test can take our temperature – it can tell us whether we succeeded.

A workshop, on the other hand, will recognize the need for judgment and direct feedback.

At CiRCE, for example, we believe that writing can be learned only through an apprenticeship. Writing is a craft, and a craft can only be learned through coaching by a master. That is why we put so much emphasis on the need for the teacher to understand the ideas taught in our Lost Tools of Writing program.

Writing, like every art, requires judgment. That is why people often say, “There are no rules.”

They are almost right. The one rule is propriety. This directs the teacher’s and students’ attention away from rules to purpose and nature, because propriety is determined by the nature and the purpose of the act, the actor, and the other participants in the act.

And propriety requires judgment.

And judgment takes awareness of principles, understanding of the nature of the act, process, and artifact, knowledge of the thing represented in the writing, wisdom, and clarity of purpose.

Writing needs to be taught practically – it’s a craft.

And you can never develop the judgment writing requires if you don’t thoroughly understand the rules of normal writing.

Practical writing, therefore, is always taught within a theoretical framework, a paradigm if you like. The failure to teach children spelling, grammar, and usage in the contemporary school arises from a theory of human nature, of education, and of writing that undercuts all three, as reflected in the growing inability and unwillingness of the people to communicate with any care or depth over the past few generations.

So to become a great writer or to help your students become one, you’ll want to do what you can to clarify your theory. The good news is that that clarification begins with common sense observations.

More good news: there are plenty of sources available to develop your theory of writing in dialogue with others. But be careful. If you read what other people say, you might not be looking at what writers do and how children learn. The value of what others say comes in the rather obvious fact that they’ll see things you can’t see and if they’ve written something it almost certainly has been thought about for a while. But if the theory is bad, the thought will only make it worse.

Some sources:

  • Aristotle: Poetics (short read, worth reading a lot over the years. This still drives most movie writing)
  • Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Read his comments to the players in Acts 2 and 3 (if my memory is on)
  • Wendell Berry: Standing By Words (simply incredible)
  • Anything about theory by Ezra Pound. Watch out for his politics.
  • Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biologia Literaria (probably the hardest of these to read – don’t start with this)
  • Louis Markos, Teaching Company series on the History of literary criticism. Very nice introduction to theories over time, (though I think he misunderstood Plato’s point in the Republic).

I’ll leave it there for now. Those will do for one or two lifetimes anyway.

Mending Bad Soles

Nothing is more refreshing to my soul than an insightful discussion of a great idea.

On September 10 the 2009/10 apprenticeship met for our first conference call and when I left it I felt as if I had enjoyed a spring shower after a long, miserable March. One of the apprentices spoke of the freedom and the joy of teaching children according to their nature. That makes my life worth living.

In addition, we entered a discussion about Julius Caesar and Shakespeare’s use of rhetoric (in which he was clearly very well trained). The question that propels our reading is “who is the best rhetorician in Julius Caesar?”

I asked, “Who tries to persuade anybody else in Act one and how does he do it?”

We saw that Cassius tries to persuade Brutus, largely through flattery.

We saw that the soothsayer tries to persuade Caesar through an imperative riddle: “Beware the ides of March.”

And we saw that Flavius and Marullus, two senators, try to persuade the common people through a series of questions, followed by an appeal to their emotions.

Persuasion, according to Aristotle, appeals to one or more of three things:

1. Logos, or the message itself, sometimes defined as reason.

2. Pathos, or the emotions, sometimes legitimately, when it is contained within the message by necessity, other times illegitimately, when it is simple manipulation.

3. Ethos, or the character of the speaker.

Pathos is valid when it arises naturally from the logos and ethos is fitting when it matches the logos.

Each persuader will emphasize one of these, but rarely to the exclusion of the others. Cassius, for example, wants Brutus on his side because of his reputation as an honorable man. His ethos will appeal to those who listen to him. But Cassius also wants Brutus to proclaim a message.

In general, the senators regard themselves as above pathos; they believe themselves to be about honor and truth. They think the common people are driven by emotions and they look down on that.

I’ll be watching as we proceed to see how Shakespeare develops that assumption.

In the course of our discussion a lot of ideas came out in really a rather short time. The one that took my breath away was when one of the apprentices juxtapositioned Caesar’s words after the soothsayer issued his warning (“What man is that?”) with the actions and words of the senators as the opening of the first scene. In particular, he showed that they determined to “disrobe the images.”

In other words, as the people were parading through the streets they were putting robes on the statues to celebrate Caesar’s triumph (which was over other Romans, by the way). Flavius and Marullus wanted the robes removed.

I think Shakespeare’s purpose in Julius Caesar is to disrobe the images so the real man can be known. Who was Caesar, apart from his ceremonies? Who was Brutus? What, after all, is a man?

I still make the high school mistake of reading some sections of Shakespeare quickly, even inattentively, as though some lines matter less than others. The apprentices showed me that I had done that yet again in the opening scene, when the senators encounter a cobbler. It seems to me that this encounter may well encapsulate Shakespeare’s self-perception as a craftsman, which is much more than a mere rhetorician who tries to persuade for the sake of persuasion.

The cobbler (which can mean a bumbler or what we mean by cobbler) describes himself to them as “a mender of bad soles.”

Indeed.

Small and Precious Jewels

My heart’s hand would comfort the lovers of Russian literature, like myself, who can read one book every third year. How much more swiftly Elizabeth’s fools and scribes touch the Angloliterophiliacs, also like myself, with noble anger, happy shows, and strange mutations – delving beneath the collars and blowing our minds to the heavens.

King Lear – five acts, about 30 minutes each:: grief personified, humility incarnated, life revealed through despair, wisdom exalted by madmen.

How I love Shakespeare and the ancient Greek playwrights – so great a return for so small a price.

This week I committed and even forced myself to read one act from Lear each night. By the end of the week, I’ve read the whole play. Then next week, perhaps, I’ll return to some of the more beautiful or challenging or penetrating passages:

Gloucester, newly blinded:

Let the superflous and lust-dieted man,
that will not see
Because he does not feel
, feel your power quickly.

A Gentleman replying to Kent’s query whether Cordelia had read his letter:

And now and then an ample tear trilled down
Her delicate cheek…

This same gentleman, a moment later:

Sorrow would be a rarity most beloved
If all could so become it.

This seems most fitting to read during a storm on the western Good Friday, when we remember our Lord’s glorious shame and the pierced soul of His mother, sitting, lying, standing, hand-wringing beneath His cross, yearning to wash the water-mingled blood streaming down his shins, to take His sufferings, which He had borne for her and us, on herself. Here was sorrow fulfilled, perfected, achieved.

And one more, when Lear is captured later in Act 4:

I will die bravely like a smug bridegroom.

Could anyone else have written that but Shakespeare? Could anyone else have said it but Lear? What a pittance to pay an evening’s rest just for that one crown. Well, I must read.

Twelfth Night

January 6th was the last day of the 12 days of Christmas, and last night was, therefore, the twelfth night. In the traditional Christmas calendar, January 6th is Epiphany or Theophany. In fact, for the first few centuries and in some places to this day Epiphany is treated as the more important “Christmas” event.

 Epiphany has been the commeration of two things in the church calendar. As I understand it, the west remembers the visit of the Magi, while the east remembers the baptism of Christ. In either case, we see Christ revealed as Messiah and son of God. In His baptism, something extraordinary occurs. The text of the Old Covenant had spoken of the Holy Spirit and had prophecied Immanuel, but the trinity was never explicitly revealed. At the baptism of Christ, we read of this extraordinary encounter:

 While Christ is being baptized, the heavens open (the heavens that had been closed to mankind in Adam) and the Spirit descends in bodily form like a dove. Meanwhile, a voice speaks from heaven saying (don’t miss this): “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.”

Epiphany could literally be translated “enlightenment” without too much violence to the word. Here in Christ’s baptism, the ultimate enlightenment takes place. What could never have been discovered has been revealed. God has come in the flesh. God the Father has a Beloved Son. Being baptized, our incarnate God has been annointed to save us all. He who had been hiding in a carpenter’s shop in Nazareth was revealed to His people and eventually to all mankind as the hope of salvation.

People have speculated about why Shakespeare called his play Twelfth Night. Shakespeare never seemed to do anything unless he had at least three reasons and six interpretations, but there is no doubt in my mind that he is at least nodding to this tradition in his title. It is a play of veiled identities, egos blinded, madness and imprisonment. But in the end, the very simple “separated twins” plot device brings clarity when they all discover the truth about each other and themselves upon the arrival of one who was thought drowned. It is a great epiphany, and celebrates, through imitation, the great Epiphany that is the twelfth day of Christmas.