Archive | July, 2014

HAMLET – WHAT’S A BOY TO DO?

27 Jul

           

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A TALE OF TWO CHAMBERS

In the first speech we see Hamlet as an emotional young man, racked by grief, torn by bereavement, but without the inclination to revenge. The later sea-change of emotional torment he undergoes can be explained by the pre and post visitation of the ghost: the revelations of his dead father which cause him to alter his point of view. There’s a dramatic difference in the boy prior to this experience and of the emotionally disturbed Hamlet later in the play. Although mourning his father’s death, he’s also looking for someone to blame – a fault we can probably forgive – which can only be perceived as a very human trait. Why him, why his father and most of all why did his mother marry his uncle? In a whirlwind of emotion, Hamlet is tossed and torn between sadness and anger. Unable to contain his emotion, Hamlet is chastised by his uncle and mother for his “impious stubbornness” (1.2.95) and “unmanly grief,” (1.2.96) and so his thoughts turn to suicide. How can he possibly go on with the agony he bears when all around him seem to doubt and requite him for his melancholy? Hamlet is alone and bereft, or at least so he thinks. What’s a boy to do? On the one hand he isn’t loved and yet on the other he’s the most constant thing in his “parents” eyes. His mother implores him not to return to Wittenberg whilst his uncle tells him he’s the heir to Denmark. Hamlet, frustrated, recognizes his own character flaw when he says “I must not hold my tongue.”(1.2.160) He knows that he must speak out, but in doing so what can he possibly hope to achieve? Surely – as he knows himself – he should have confronted his mother before her marriage. Once again Hamlet proves tardy in his reactions and so one has to question his moral fortitude.

            Hamlet shows a religious reverence and although wishing his “too sullied flesh to melt” (1.2.129) is forbidden to do so by God’s Cannon. Suicide isn’t an option and so he must persevere. His anger turns instead towards his “parents” in an attempt to justify his own feelings. God’s lore raises its head again in the comment regarding “incestuous sheets” (1.2.157) and the unseemly urgency to which his mother has remarried after his father’s sudden death. This would seem to indicate that there may have been some kind of attachment between his mother and uncle before the death of his father. The idea of “incestuous sheets”(1.2.157) would’ve have been familiar to the Globe’s audience as it was within living memory that Henry VIII married Catherine of Aragon – his brother’s wife – who he later threw over for Anne Boleyn, preempting the dissolution of the monasteries and the faith related hate that ensued throughout the rest of the century. It would seem that bed hopping between kith and kin only leads to problems and therefore, why wouldn’t God forbid it? One only had to have an experience of the alternating persecution between Catholics and Protestants to understand the nature of Hamlet’s frustration. Shakespeare was making a historical reference that his audience would’ve understood and which would’ve undoubtedly engendered sympathy for Hamlet’s later actions.       

            In the closet we meet a new Hamlet, a man who’s suddenly decided on a plan of action. No longer the potential suicide we met earlier in the play, he’s a man bent on revenge and prepared to speak his mind in order to avenge his father. No longer cowed by hierarchical position he speaks to his mother directly, “You are the queen your husband’s brothers wife.” (3.4.16) Hamlet is determined to express his deepest thoughts and in doing so, to hold a mirror to Gertrude and reveal her failings and expose her new husband. Motivated by his conversation with the ghost, Hamlet is precisely aware of what’s occurred between his uncle and father. His father, although revealing murder, has importuned him not to harm his mother and so, impotent to serve justice upon her, can only reveal his inner most thoughts. Not a particularly brave act on the part of Hamlet, as surely a better man would’ve taken the quarrel to the father – but there again its Hamlet we’re dealing with and not some warrior prince – when he confronts both a woman and his mother. Rather than inaction, Hamlet is turned into the revenge figure, his easy murder and acquittal of the death of Polonius revealing his new discovered fortitude. He’s out for blood and in the blazon of attributes and deficiencies of both his mother’s husbands, lets her have it both barrels: his anger not sparing his tongue. Harping once again on the “inseemed sheets” of her marriage bed, Hamlet expresses a jealousy for his mother’s love. One has to pose the question whether or not it is the death of his father he’s angry about, or the fact that her mother has given her sexual love to another man. After all, as his father’s son, shouldn’t he inherit all? His tone is tempered by the ghost, who once again implores him to love his mother. There’s an affinity between the two which is almost tangible but which his mother can’t requite because of her love for Claudius, the apparent madness of her son and the murder she’s just witnessed.

            The second conversation, although an act of revenge, is also a cry for help. Ensconced in his mother’s chamber with the corpse of Polonius and the ghost of his father, Hamlet is as close to his former life as he’ll ever be. Although far from perfect, the experience of the family reunion might’ve been the turning point for Hamlet if it wasn’t for his uncle’s necessary retribution. Hamlet, although trying to achieve justice for his father, must now face the justice of his own actions. Clearly the development of the dual characterization of Hamlet as a man of action and a man paralyzed by emotion is the twist Shakespeare was looking for and the reason that we’re so enthralled with his character.

            The two separate scenes are typical of Shakespearian characterization, where the mirror of opposites is held up to the character and from which the audience must draw its own conclusion. Nothing is as simple as it as first seems and in between the cracking of walnuts there had to have been an element of concentration on the part of the groundlings. Hamlet is not an easy play and the twists and turns it contains would’ve undoubtedly warranted a second viewing.

 

 

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ART FOR IRELAND’S SAKE

21 Jul

Yeats and the Creation of the Irish Myth

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               William Butler Yeats was born into the remnants of what’d been the protestant ascendancy, the privileged, British backed community that was supposed to transform the Irish into English, but which instead did exactly the opposite. Yet another failed political move on the part of the British to crush the inhabitants of the rain swept nation by means of political, social and economic pressure that would supposedly bring them under the yoke of empire. After five hundred years of conflict, Ireland was proving a hard nut to crack. As the preferred class of Ireland, the Protestants held all major posts within the puppet government controlled from London at the expense of the Catholic majority. Naturally this created friction between the two distinct denominations and could only result in unrest and conflict, as history has shown. Ireland was awakening and struggling for an Identity. It was the pursuit of identity that would eventually knit the island nation together and forge that which is quintessentially Irish. Rather than a collection of communities, Ireland had to coalesce into a single country which meant that there had to be a definition of what it was to be Irish and the creation of a national dissonance. Not unlike other nations who’ve cobbled together that which expresses their supposed national traits, Ireland needed a cultural bond that would meld the nation into the imagination of itself. Ireland needed a poet and found him embodied in William Butler Yeats.            Through his poetry and political associations, Yeats helped to cement that which today, is considered Ireland. His verse and retrospective romanticism allowing for a communal vision that would eventually lead to an Ireland that, although not united, is today recognizable as a defined cultural entity.

               For fifteen years of his early life, Yeats was raised in England, spending summers with his Irish mother in Sligo. The experience of each county divided Yeats loyalties, endowing him with an affinity for both, but a home in neither. He was exposed to the political prejudice of Britain towards the Irish as well as the juxtaposition of his mother’s idyllic and so must have experienced provenancial disparity. Therefore, as an Anglo-Irish man with conflicted origins, he was drawn towards Irish nationalism and the tantalizing concept of home rule and a free Ireland.

               Yeats finally found his true poetical footing after joining the Irish Republican Brotherhood in 1885. Although wearing many different hats throughout his writing career, including the autobiographical, historical and occultist it is the political that simultaneously raised awareness of his own early work and that of the Finnian cause. (p.4) His later meeting with the firebrand and political activist Maud Gonne in 1889, set his him on a path that would shape his poetry and forever influence the selective memory of a birthing nation. Infatuated by both her beauty and personality Yeats claimed, “She [would] make many converts to her political beliefs.” (p.12) Gonne was so influential in his political leanings, that if she had told Yeat’s the world was flat, “he would gladly have joined her party.”(p.12) Consequently, rather than a political activist himself, he was seduced into a cause that would forever be reflected in the poetry he wrote and which later, would come to be considered as the very essence of Ireland. Under the influence of Gonne his poetry was elevated to the level of political consciousness, becoming as it did a very necessary tool in the arsenal of the Free Staters and separatists. In order to persuade Gonne that he was sufficiently nationalist and, “in order to satisfy her revolutionary thirst, he began to focus his poetry on Irish themes.” (p.13) Gonne provided Yeats with the focus and necessary objectivity that would later enable him to describe a, “life lived.” (p.11) Fearing that the, “personal utterance[s] of his earlier youth,” (p.16) would lend itself to sentimentality, Yeats concentrated on objectifying a subjective truth: in his own words, “A modern country…. resemble[s] that which is most unlike a modern Ireland.” (p.17) With this in mind Yeats collected Irish myths and country tales, assembling and cataloging the ancient oral tradition and showcasing them in his own work. Through his so called Irish poetry he began to create in the minds of men, “the myth founded mask of Ireland (p.17)

               Gonne and the Brotherhood were clearly influential in the early bundle “Crossways” – released in 1889 – and lend a political identity to his future work. It’s within “Crossways” that Yeats begins to recognize his own relationship with Ireland and alludes to the adoption of a mask that would eventually become that of the Irish. His political themes are represented throughout the book, but in particular in “Salley Gardens.”

               Although a short, sweet almost lyrical couplet, rather than a poem, “Down by Salley Gardens” represents an unambiguous if less obvious, political position. “She bid me take love easy, as the leaves grow on the tree; But I, being young and foolish, with her would not agree.”A clandestine meeting perhaps of lovers perched on the moment of consummation. A female, despite her romantic inclination, warns her lover to slow down, enjoy the moment and not be so hasty. All will apparently come to pass if only patience is applied. Not willing to listen to her words the youth is intent on his goal and in his hasty pursuit of love falls fowl of his own impatience and ultimately loses everything. What at first appears to be a lover’s lamentation of loving in haste, is very clearly a line in the sand; a political stance describing a moment of choice.

               Yeats uses the imagery of the woman in the poem to represent Ireland, just as he does in his later play “Cathleen ni Houlihan” in which Gonne played the part of the motherland. The Youth is representative of the followers of “Parnell”, and instead of an account of the urgency of sexual gratification, is the fight for Irish recognition and the battle for home rule. In their haste to change the status-quo between Britain and Ireland, the Fennian movement is impetuous and in being so, not only sullies its own reputation, but almost puts political objective beyond their reach in the same lamentable vein as the lover in the poem “But I was young and foolish, and now am full of tears.” Viewed by the British Government as revolutionary, their fight is quickly demonized and their cause ridiculed. Yeats is not proposing temperance but patience. The Ireland they all desire will come, but as with most things not as quickly as the movement would like. In the slow steady plod of politics the birthing of a nation will have to jump through the necessary hurdles in order to achieve its eventual goal of a free Ireland. The “young Ireland” requires patience of her patriots, insisting that their moment will succeed, if only they will commit. Republicanism is in the first throes of love and before consummation can occur, must tread the weary path of the would-be lover represented in the poem. Yeats captures brilliantly, through the sexual tension of the lovers, the relationship between the Republicans and political ambition.

             Often in his poetry, Yeats draws on the mythological and Celtic to parallel political ambition. Through the cementation of the perceived character of Ireland an idyllic is created that’s worth fighting for. In order to create a common Irish consciousness Yeats implants the idea of nationhood, that although supposedly having always existed, requires protection in order for it to flourish. Much as England usurped the Lebanese Saint George as their adopted patron saint and their alleged Trojan birthright in the persona of Felix Brutus, Yeats creates the mystique of provenance. Drawn from the depths of Irish folklore and collected from the mouths of Irish peasantry Yeats paints a picture clothed in the mists of imagination. Rather than offering a history and chronology of Ireland he presents a moment that is almost tangible in his poem “The Stolen Child.” The child is tempted by the faeries to leave the cruel world and return to the Arcadia just beyond site: there where the true spirit of Ireland lays. “Come away o’ human child, to the waters and the wild.” The poem is a reminder of the way things were and offers a gentle nudge of contemplation to the condition of the nation and where it’s going. Should the children of Ireland be raised in a land unsuitable to even their faery folk, or should an Ireland be created that encompasses the future of their youth and the sanctity of all they hold to be true? Yeats suggests, “With a faery, hand in hand, for the worlds more full of weeping than you can understand.” The poem although beautiful, could almost be seen as a call to arms, not dissimilar to the kind of propaganda Britain held up to its men at the start of the First World War. With unashamed sentimentality, soldiers were lured to the trenches in the same manner the Irish are lured to the woods. Yeats created a land for the youth of Ireland, blanketed in tradition, just as Britain offered the fighting men, a home for heroes upon their return.

               Yeats continues this idea in his later bundle “The Wind Among the Reeds” published in 1899. In his poem “The Fiddler of Dooney,” Yeats offers an intrinsically Irish attitude. With the religious divisions that had so troubled the Irish – from the Protestantism of their rulers and the innate Catholicism that had allegedly been introduced by Saint Patrick – he recognizes that the divisiveness of religion is just as harmful to a united people as foreign rule. The Irish are not only divided as a nation, but also by their faith. Without resolution, no matter how hard the fight the British, they can never win the battle amongst themselves. For, “they read in the books of prayer,” and the fiddler (Yeats), “read in my book of songs, bought at Sligo fair.” The Fiddler is first and foremost Irish, neither following the church nor believing their rhetoric. He depicts an Ireland in the sunshine where, without the chastisement of priests, the people can create their own unity. The only thing separating the fiddler’s dalliance and the problems of religion are the tangible smiles on the faces and the happiness in their hearts, “For the good are always merry, save by an evil chance, and the merry love the fiddle and the merry love to dance.” Ireland is clearly a nation of people, not of religious faction, as Yeats appeals in his alternative view. The Arcadian concept of Ireland also creates a notion of homeland and of belonging, recognition of self and what it means to be Irish. As jaded as that concept may sometimes appear, it is the simple conditioning of attitude that creates nations and Yeats, along with his Republican brothers, is keenly aware of that. Decrying sentimentality in verse as he does, one has to look for the “mask” and try to understand that which isn’t obvious. Yeats isn’t describing an Ireland for posterity, but instead is asking the Irish to recognize themselves. This is who we are, this is what we do; this is the Ireland we all desire. With the implementation of the Irish myth, Yeats takes his readers by the hearts in order that their minds will follow. One could even go as far as to say that he propagandizes the notion of Ireland and the Irish.

               The myth of the Irish, espoused through Yeats’ poetry, undoubtedly promotes present day attitudes that are representative of the idea of Ireland. Through his poetry and associations, Yeats helped to cement that which is contemporarily considered Irish: his verse and retrospective romanticism allowing for the creation of a cultural identity. Without his political association and the political struggles of 19th Century Ireland, Yeats may very well, not have been the major poet contemporary society considers him to be. His poetry, despite his ability, was both of and for the moment. A formative moment in time, both for Yeats and the country he represents today.

 

Works Cited

Unterecker, John. A Reader’s Guide to William Butler Yeats: New York. Syracuse University Press. 1996. Print

AS YOU LIKE IT

15 Jul

  

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Rosalind and the Counterfeit of Intelligence.

             One must bear in mind that Rosalind although a female character, has been created by a man and therefore her sensibilities are not always those of her own sex. In many instances we discover that the emotions and stereotypical characteristics represented by her persona have been imposed upon her. Although embodying the image of woman, we often see her, as it were, in the third person with apportioned wisdom and worldly familiarity. This is both amusing and humorous, but tends to muddle our reaction to her, as although she’s a woman dressed as a man, she’s very often a woman with a sixteenth century male attitude. As to her propensity to intelligence in the nature of love, this is confused and interchangeable as we are offered a Rosalind who is filled with wise aphorisms but who is complicated by her own feminine wiles. Rosalind is the victim of her own game and therefore a willing participant who gives herself over to her own urges despite understanding the perils of romantic love. Given the acumen of her opponent Orlando, it’s easy to judge her intelligent, but then in the land of the blind, a man with one eye is king. Hence her character juxtaposes both the joys and the pitfalls of romance. Rosalind embodies intelligence, vivacity, and energetic youth but in the matter of her own infatuation is as giddy as the next lover.

               Love is a game to be pursued when there is nothing else of great import. In our very first interaction with Rosalind she suggests to her cousin, “What think you of falling in love?”(1.2.165) Although agreeable, her cousin reminds her to be mindful of her “honesty” which suggests that Rosalind is incautious in her romantic decisions. This is repeated throughout the play when Celia continually cautions her to the precarious nature of her actions, promoting herself, rather than her cousin, to the position of sage. It’s Rosalind’s reaction to Orlando at the wrestling match, whom she finds to be worthy of her instantaneous love simply because her own father loved his, that is disturbing, although later in the play we’re witness to her disdain for the shepherdess Phoebe who muses on the joys of love at first site. Rosalind is confused and rather than using rational thought, exhibits poor judgment and possesses a self-destructive bent. After being chased from the court she’s soon distracted by the love-notes Orlando has posted throughout the forest and perhaps in a moment of desperation and weakness, as a drowning man seizes a piece of flotsam, pins her hopes on a youth she doesn’t know. On first hearing of the young man in the forest she lists a blazon of attributes that would suit her fancy, “What manner of man? Is his head worth a hat or his chin worth a beard?”(3.2.1309) Thankful that her suitor is Orlando she begins her diatribe with “Good my complexion! dost thou think, though I am caparison’d like a man,”(3.2.1300) suggesting that she recognizes she has neither the acumen or wit to resolve her predicament herself and therefore is grateful for the sudden appearance of a male figure. Any male figure! Here Rosalind represents stereotypical woman and therefore it’s hard to judge her intelligent. The idea of the game is continued when she meets Orlando and suggests to him that instead of pining for his sweetheart, he should woo her in her place. This is manipulation on her part, in order to test the love he professes. Rather than intelligent, this is a selfish move and in preference to tending to her flocks, avoiding the dangers of the forest or hiding from the wrath of the Duke desperate to recover his kin, decides to fall deeper in love, even to the extent of feigned marriage.

               Her actions are those of a giddy girl in love and yet we are continually offered bright spots of deep thought which seem pertinent to her own desires. She knows that men woo in April but wed in December and understands that to marry in haste, “timetrots hard with a young maid between the contract of her marriage and the day it is solemniz’d,” is foolish. This is the third person aspect where Rosalind although speaking as a woman develops the sensibilities of a man. She is aware of the devious nature of woman when describing the horns of the snail and the lack of wit in men who will soon see their wives in the beds of their neighbors and even expresses the irrationality of love which is merely “a madness [that] deserves [a] dark house and a whip as madmen do.”(3.2.1476) This is the problematic of the play, where suddenly Rosalind becomes somebody else. It’s as though by donning male apparel she has assumed the mind of a man and therefore the supposed intellect that follows. Rosalind isn’t just cross dressing but is cross gendering, assuming not only their doublet and hose but also their sensibilities. She’s able to recognize the faults of both love and marriage, is able to test and prove her lover, offer great advice to those who would fall in love and yet is victim to her own desires.

               It is the effect of men’s clothing that seems to induce intelligence in Rosalind rather than an innate sense of propriety and wisdom. Despite her outward looks and her witticisms she is unable to hide her woman’s heart, that which she accuses the shepherd of, “Warr’st thou with a woman’s heart?” (4.3.2046) when she supposedly counterfeits fainting at the news of Orlando’s injury. She recognizes herself in the shepherdess that falls in love with her whilst she is dressed as a man and yet, although seeing herself reflected in Phoebe’s womanish nature, does nothing to amend her own actions. Just as Rosalind is Ganymede she’s also the simple country woman who refuses the love of a true man. Shakespeare, as he so often does, confronts his characters with their mirror image. If Rosalind can’t see past the infatuation of the lesser woman then clearly she doesn’t have the wit to save herself from what she’s already described as a difficult path. The stairway to marriage, even if self-constructed, may not be the wisest decision.

               Polonius in “Hamlet” advises Laertes that “the apparel oft proclaims the man,” (1.3.76) and in “As you Like it” that would seem to hold true. Therefore the intelligence that Rosalind embodies is a counterfeit of that which she pretends. As she herself intones, she is but a woman hiding in men’s clothes and does not possess that which divides the sexes. Rosalind therefore is not an intelligent woman, even though she is granted with the gift of wit by her author, and must retain her place in the great chain of being for fear of upsetting the spheres. Rosalind is a fraud who is exposed by her own desires and womanly ways. This alludes to the young men on the Shakespearian stage that acted the parts of woman and compounds the moral of the play and the adage from the “Merchant of Venice” that, “All that glisters is not gold.”(2.7.69) Rosalind, in the sixteenth century experience, is a woman – nothing more and nothing less.