All form is formless, order orderless

Driftwood burl. Author photo.

The title line for this post is misleading because it is incomplete. Spoken by Cardinal Pandolf in King John, the opening phrase suggests a dissolution, a complete disintegration of form, order, and (as Pandolf deliberately implies) meaning. The whole line underscores something else:

All form is formless, order orderless,
Save what is opposite to England’s love.
Therefore to arms! be champion of our church,
Or let the church, our mother, breathe her curse,
A mother’s curse, on her revolting son.
France, thou mayst hold a serpent by the tongue,
A chafed lion by the mortal paw,
A fasting tiger safer by the tooth,
Than keep in peace that hand which thou dost hold.

King John 3.1.178

Legate from the Pope, Pandolf represents the Pope’s spiritual authority, and at this moment in the play, he opens his speech with a vertiginous moment. Formless form. Orderless order. The words preceding the word “save” push us. Ideas that all form might actually be formless unbalance us on the lip of a precipice. Substance drops away and we are in danger of tumbling into the abyss of chaos and dissolution.

Pandolf voices a plasticity often associated with madness or psychedelic states. Forms melt and dissolve, potentially threatening to merge into each other. The language suggests the possibility of different emergent shapes or forms, derived from previously unconsidered associations. Shakespeare frequently uses such metaphorical mechanisms. When we have our footing, we know a hawk from a handsaw, we know that owls are not bakers’ daughters.

Still, Shakespeare’s language so frequently leads us elsewhere. Beckoned out of familiar parallel, we might be compared to a summer’s day. Or we may be led into the melting language of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where the final act is bookended with the idea of dreams. The fifth act opens with the Duke’s doubts:

’Tis strange, my Theseus, that these lovers speak of.
More strange than true. I never may believe
These antique fables nor these fairy toys.
Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends.
The lunatic, the lover, and the poet
Are of imagination all compact.
One sees more devils than vast hell can hold:
That is the madman. The lover, all as frantic,
Sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt.
The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to Earth, from Earth to
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream 5.1.1-18

And the act closes with Puck’s monologue where fairy melts into character melts into player:

If we shadows have offended,
Think but this and all is mended:
That you have but slumbered here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend.
If you pardon, we will mend.
And, as I am an honest Puck,
If we have unearnèd luck
Now to ’scape the serpent’s tongue,
We will make amends ere long.
Else the Puck a liar call.
So good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends.


Visions become dreams become goodnight become applause.

Shifting reality. Psychedelic indeed.

Yet, an experience with which we all are at least somewhat familiar. As a more modern writer described it:

We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold. I remember saying something like “I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe you should drive….” And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the sky was full of what looked like huge bats, all swooping and screeching and diving around the car, which was going about a hundred miles an hour with the top down to Las Vegas. And a voice was screaming: “Holy Jesus! What are these goddamn animals?”

Then if was quiet again. My attorney had taken his shirt off and was pouring beer on his chest to facilitate the tanning process. “What the hell are you yelling about?” he muttered, staring up at the sun with his eyes closed and covered with wraparound Spanish sunglasses.*

The fantastic shift from one reality to another. From day to night. Sky to bats to beer facilitated tans. Bear in mind that these are drug imbibing professionals. Please don’t try this at home.

Not that we need the drugs. We can simply set off, proclaiming a new reality, a new way of expression:

children of the night,
bearers of the day torch: 
scorched and burned. 
the dam is broken. 
the curse is fled.
once muddied and still,
the river runs 

those ships that never sailed
the ones with their seacocks open
that were scuttled in their stalls
i bring them back
and let them sail

Same landscapes may differ depending on the perspective. As Tom Lehrer reminds us, a little hug becomes huge instantly if you just add silent “e”:

Tom Lehrer, Silent E from the album “The Rest of Tom Lehrer”, 1960, cartoon featured on the television series The Electric Company, 1972.

Cans become canes. Cubs become cubes. All very cozy. Transformation. Butterflies, yes. But transformation may also be terrifying. Hunter S. Thompson’s bats, and also wolves, as we can see from David Naughton’s portrayal of David Kessler’s first werewolf transformation:

An American Werewolf in London, Universal Pictures, 1981.

That the wholesome might be quickly subsumed by the unholy or diseased is not new. Shakespeare’s general Coriolanus, who hates the plebeians, asks them “What’s the matter, you dissentious rogues,/ That, rubbing the poor itch of your opinion,/ Make yourselves scabs?” He sees the common people themselves almost as a disease, a kind of underlying lycanthropy of opinion which at the slightest agitation erupts into the scabrous.

Not only landscapes may vary from day:

Dayfield. Author photo.

into night:

Nightfield. Author photo.

But we may also forget ourselves, or even transform momentarily. Gary Snyder notes a moment when when the America of his own past seemed almost like a love to him again:


I went into the Maverick Bar
In Farmington, New Mexico.
And drank double shots of bourbon
                                          backed with beer.
My long hair was tucked up under a cap
I'd left the earring in the car.

Two cowboys did horseplay
                                           by the pol tables,
A waitress asked us
                                            where you from?
a country-and-western band began to play
"We don't smoke Marijuana in Muskokie"
And with the next song
                                             a couple began to dance.

They held each other like in High School dances 
                                              in the fifties;
I recalled when I worked in the woods
                                              and the bars of Madras, Oregon.
That short-haired joy and roughness--
                                              America--your stupidity.
I could almost love you again.

We left--onto the freeway shoulders--
                                              under the tough old stars--
In the shadow of bluffs
                                              I came back to myself,
To the real work, to
                                              "What is to be done."***

For truth may be scraped up wherever we are standing. Wherever we are sitting. Drinking. Falling. We all become werewolves, bats, falling down the rabbit hole whole. We scratch ourselves, less good at Kerouacian “rolling under the stars”, and better and better at sex and violins.

“Weekend Update editorial response” from NBC Universal’s Saturday Night Live. Emily Litella (Gilda Radner) and Chevy Chase.

SNL got it right, of course, and I could show more except corporate limitations on availability restrict such freedoms. The television show is owned. The material is owned. Performances are owned. As America has become better at violence, we have also become better (as has the world) at owning things. At transforming things, ideas, impulses, and human activity into territory. Fencing things off. Old ideas of “Don’t fence me in” be damned. The transformation has become one of fencing for dollars.

We sacrifice ourselves on the altars of Mammon, transforming corporations and our own acquisition into gods. These gods provide not just our fulfillment, but also our expression. We are what we drive, watch, eat. We are the mighty thought trains upon which we hitch a ride. Not what we build. Not what we paint. Not what we write. What we create.

We found our big rock candy mountain, but it now rots our teeth and our minds to paraphrase Kevin McCallister.

Watch the American shows on Netflix. Then watch the offerings from any other country. French. Korean. See a difference? Is America leading the pack? In what? Perhaps it’s just me.

In one sense, Cardinal Pandolf was right. When we fall away from the path of the true and righteous, we lose not only ourselves, but also the universe. We cannot gather rosebuds because our hands melt away from us. Our agency is lost to mindless dithering–to mere rhetorical allegiances. Dali’s memory clocks melt even as we rush to meet our impossible schedules, with our feet sticking to the streets as we try to run.

We sacrifice art and thought. We become John Wilkes Booth instead of Edwin, and our actor becomes an assassin. The fascist lords it over those who would oppose the fascist aims, inventing terms with which to brand them traitorous. “Antifa”, we hear in the streets, a term which seems to make the idea of standing against fascism a bad thing when the only thing that is truly bad is violins. Violin actions. Violin thoughts. Violin attitudes.

We pick our skins away becoming hollow reeds and empty vessels. Is someone stealing something from us? That’s what we’re told. And we argue about it, even coming to blows.

Field of Dreams, Universal Pictures, 1989. Beulah Gasnick (Lee Garlington) vs. Annie Kinsella (Amy Madigan).

Nonetheless, storming the capitol is hardly an answer. If we stab Caesar, he may lie Pompey’s feet, but a new Caesar will come slouching out of the woods. The new monster will come out of the dark when we call for our pet dog to come in for the night. Something shambling from our past into our future. Sins of the fathers and mothers will be transported to the newly planted Rome.

The only salvation lies in creation, in easing the pain by affirming existence. The truth of human experience lies in the “am” of “I am”, in calling into being and letting be.

At the end of Turtle Island, Gary Snyder reminds us of how a poet is. He speaks of poets of earth, air, fire, water, and finally space and mind.

The Space Poet
No end to the sky--
But his poems,
Like wild geese,
Fly off the edge.

A Mind Poet
Stays in the house.
The house is empty
And it has no walls.
The poem 
Is seen from all sides,
At once.****

Hard to argue. Real change lies not in ownership, not in acquisition, but in perspective. These things make us comfortable, but it is understanding which makes life worth living. Drawing and living the dawn of our own directions makes us whole, and gives us back our lives. Whether we make films, write prose, paint, or play cricket or baseball, only the core of our own art makes us whole. When we follow that, the walls all disappear.

Then we dream the dream and become a summer’s day.

*Thompson, Hunter S. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: a Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream. New York: Vintage, 1998, p.1.

**Williams, Saul Stacey. ,Said the Shotgun to the Head. New York etc.: Pockets Books, 2003, pp.2-3.

***Snyder, Gary. “I Went into the Maverick Bar.” Poem. In Turtle Island. New York: New Directions, 2008, p.9.

****”As for Poets.” Poem. Ibid, p.86.

The Gardener

In memory of David Gould.

Shakespeare Institute Garden in spring. Author photo.

In Richard II, the gardener addresses one of his assistants:

Go, bind thou up yon dangling apricocks,
Which, like unruly children, make their sire
Stoop with oppression of their prodigal weight:
Give some supportance to the bending twigs.
Go thou, and like an executioner,
Cut off the heads of too fast growing sprays,
That look too lofty in our commonwealth:
All must be even in our government.
You thus employ’d, I will go root away
The noisome weeds, which without profit suck
The soil’s fertility from wholesome flowers.

Richard II 3.4.30-40

Like a minister or a king, Shakespeare’s gardener commands the work of tending the various garden tasks in terms that a ruler might readily employ. He allocates the necessary tasks, dividing labor amongst his helpers, making certain that they see to the garden’s various needs in the same way that a king or queen might look to the function of their realm. He guides his underlings to support the fruitful, and diminish the height of the overpowering elements, while he himself tends to the nutrient stealing weeds.

Weeds represent negative forces, stealing vitality from the garden and the state. In Hamlet, the titular prince reimagines the entire world as a neglected garden:

How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world!
Fie on’t! ah, fie! ‘Tis an unweeded garden
That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature
Possess it merely.

Hamlet 1.2.135-7

Weeds at an old vineyard fence. Author photo.

The image of stifling weeds indicates Denmark’s decay. An unweeded garden disintegrates. Things go to seed, spiral out of control. The rough winds shake the darling buds of May and deafen even falcons.

Similarly, in Richard II, the ‘noisome’ weeds stand in opposition to more ‘wholesome’ flowers–even to the vision of what a garden might be, which, of course, projects many possibilities across the seasons. The gardener himself, with his candid and honest way of speaking, illustrates a kind of marked and measured progression. He is not only the commander of his domain, but also its sage. His orders lead us through a cycle of activities necessary for both the garden and the country: supporting, pruning, and cultivating. His assistants bind up heavily laden boughs, and cut back the sprays which have over extended to the point of imbalance. The gardener himself turns to essential cultivation of the soil–removing malignant and parasitic growth which impedes the nurturing foundation for more desirable plants.

Spring dew on a Warwickshire hedgerow sprays. Author photo.

Shakespeare’s gardeners, like all those who work with the soil, embody wisdom. Yet Hamlet‘s gravedigger looks backwards at remembrance, personifying the grimly wise humour of finality, while the gardener in Richard II describes an arc of tending and nurturance. One character crafts the soil into sepulchre, the other into cradle. The gardener’s specific care and attention fosters blossoming and fructifying, in the same way that a good king or queen’s methods promote the healthiest characteristics in a state or nation.

Under the right ruler, a garden or a nation may bear delicious fruit.

Wild strawberry. Author photo.

Or it may literally or figuratively bloom in indescribably beautiful ways. In early spring, rains bring forth the first blossoms.

Spring rain in the Shakespeare Institute garden. Author photo.
Warwickshire snowdrops. Author photo.

While trees still look stark and bleak, the ground erupts with early harbingers of warmer weather.

Croci and narcissi in front of Marie Corelli’s folly–the Shakespeare Institute garden in late winter. Author photo.

Later, towards high summer, many spectacular but slower blossoms truly come into their own.

First blushing rosebud. Author photo.
High summer roses in bloom. Author photo.

The gardener, who looks after his or her corner of the earth, not only sees and knows all of this, but also shapes it in wondrous ways, having seen it all, year after year.

In Richard II, the gardener and his men become increasingly specific with their parallels about King Richard’s downfall:


Why should we in the compass of a pale
Keep law and form and due proportion,
Showing, as in a model, our firm estate,
When our sea-walled garden, the whole land,
Is full of weeds, her fairest flowers choked up,
Her fruit-trees all upturned, her hedges ruin’d,
Her knots disorder’d and her wholesome herbs
Swarming with caterpillars?


Hold thy peace:
He that hath suffer’d this disorder’d spring
Hath now himself met with the fall of leaf:
The weeds which his broad-spreading leaves did shelter,
That seem’d in eating him to hold him up,
Are pluck’d up root and all by Bolingbroke–
I mean the Earl of Wiltshire, Bushy, Green.


What, are they dead?


They are; and Bolingbroke
Hath seized the wasteful king. O, what pity is it
That he had not so trimm’d and dress’d his land
As we this garden! We at time of year
Do wound the bark, the skin of our fruit-trees,
Lest, being over-proud in sap and blood,
With too much riches it confound itself:
Had he done so to great and growing men,
They might have lived to bear and he to taste
Their fruits of duty: superfluous branches
We lop away, that bearing boughs may live:
Had he done so, himself had borne the crown,
Which waste of idle hours hath quite thrown down.

Richard II 3.4.41-68

When the queen overhears this conversation, she demands of the gardener, “How dares thy harsh rude tongue sound this unpleasing news?”

To which he replies simply, “Pardon me, madam. Little joy have I
To breathe this news, yet what I say is true.”*

The gardener speaks simple natural truth with both tongue and hands. His actions His words are not open to alternative facts, but instead, like the course of nature, reflect the way the world actually is and has been. The gardener knows better than anyone that divisions between the human and the natural world are only false distinctions–that we are all parts of the same whole.

Even Shakespeare’s witty reprobate from the Henriad**, Sir John Falstaff, at the moment of his death “babbled of green fields” “and play[ed] with flowers”. Perhaps even more significantly, he “parted ev’n just between twelve and one, ev’n at the turning o’th’ tide.”***

The best gardens articulate all of nature, embodying it in microcosm. In supervising and governing the changes in their parcels of earth, gardeners become like deities. Enlisted to utilize their quiet, subtle, and profound art to underscore the best of nature’s grand effects, the gardener guides and coaxes, working with nature through all seasons and all weathers. To lose a gardener is to lose the world.

It is no secret that the Shakespeare Institute lost her caretaker and gardener this past week, just before Shakespeare’s birthday. David worked at the Institute for thirty five years, and his loss has been keenly felt by almost everyone who ever passed through the Institute’s hallways and gardens. More than a gardener, and much more than a caretaker, David’s consummate skill in looking after everything in the ancient house and grounds was exceeded only by the quiet, unassuming reassurance of his stalwart support of Institute students, facuty, and staff. To my knowledge, he attended every production the Shakespeare Institute Players put on while he was there. Kind and capable, patient, and understanding, he projected the best in each of us.

Still, for those who spent time there, it is the glory of the Institute gardens that many of us remember so well.

The advent of spring at the Shakespeare Institute. Author photo.

With David gone, even after the pandemic subsides, the Shakespeare Institute halls will remain emptier. David will always remain there in memory for as long as the place may stand, and it is truly difficult to imagine the place without his gently impressive presence.

Shakespeare Institute Hall. Author photo.

We always hope that what happens on earth is reflected in heaven or in some good place beyond what we know here. Sometimes, the beyond seems close enough that we can almost see it, almost touch it. We hope so.

Earth and heaven in the Welcombe hills. Author photo.

If there should be a garden in heaven, it isn’t difficult to believe that it might be much like David’s garden at the Shakespeare Institute–a commonwealth underscoring the beauty in scholarly reflection. I’m sure that some higher power would be happy to have David look after such a celestial plot, if he should wish it. It would be impossible to imagine anyone finer for the task.


Revisited the Institute after a long absence, to find how much David had been missed. How much he still was missed.

David’s memorial stone in the Shakespeare Institute Garden. Author photo.


Yes, David. Thank you. We are all much luckier for having known you.

*Richard II 3.4.75 and 82-3.

**Sir John Falstaff appears in 1 Henry IV, 2 Henry IV, and his death is described in Henry V. A version of the character also appears in The Merry Wives of Windsor.

***Henry V 2.3.13, 15-6, and 11-2. Mistress Quickly describes Falstaff’s death in terms of his character’s natural force, but it has been noted that she may consciously recognize that Falstaff not only may have recited Psalm 23, but (especially with the seemingly still waters at the turning of the tide) he may personify it:

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.

He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.

Psalm 23, 1-2 KJV

Openings, beginnings, and the spring.

Roses opening under rain. Author photo.

We’re not talking about chess openings here, albeit those can be similar. Bobby Fischer described the chess opening of e5 for white (pawn to king four as it was described in older times) as “best by test”. On a Go board, black moves first, and the player usually takes positions on the corners as quickly as the player can. But here, we’re talking about literature. About stories. Poetry. Plays.

Shakespeare. Writers. Storytellers. Stories.

Sweet or foul, every story has an opening. Although time itself seems to be a cycle, when we record history, fictions, plays, poems, and even essays, all have a starting point, even if the starting point lies in the middle of thoughts or events. Beginnings set tone, establish character and situation, ask questions, and establish a sense of placement while pitching our perspective and our expectations forward into the coming tale.

Shakespeare’s tales begin variously, tending to lead us onward to realisation, transformation, or even transcendence, and this can happen slowly or quickly. Consider 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,
Featur’d 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.

We begin with a life’s vintage gone sour, and for the first eight lines, we wonder at what went wrong–why we don’t have friends like others, why we don’t look like them or have their prospects. Disgraced in human society and beset with ill fortune, our life evidently looks bleak. There appears to be little light, little hope, and we feel very sorry for ourselves.

Then, in the middle of the sonnet at the ninth line, the word “Yet” appears like a lightning bolt. Suddenly, the world changes with a thought, with the thought of “thee”. How dedicated love changes everything in an instant! At the moment of thinking on this “thee”, the narrator’s state “[l]ike to the lark at break of day arising/From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate”. How marvelous to live in a state so gracious that “then I scorn to change my state with kings”!

So much of life lies in how we see things, and changing perspective may take more or less time depending on the circumstances. Sometimes, an opening may play with our expectations, misdirecting us a bit in order to increase the impact of what follows. Just as the nose upon opening a bottle of wine may hint at more or less mineral, fruit, or pepper in a wine, a story’s opening tends to suggest a direction. Where will the first mouthful take us? How will that be sustained as the company shares the bottle–or the story experience–ahead of us?

Révélation. Author photo.

Shakespeare’s play, A Comedy of Errors, begins with a character who has been described as seeing himself in a tragedy when he is really in a comedy.

Entering with his jailer in scene presided over by the Duke of Ephesus, Egeon says:

Proceed, Solinus, to procure my fall,
And by the doom of death end woes and all.

The Comedy of Errors 1.1.1-2.

This opening line is followed by several pages of Egeon’s monologue (interspersed with a few prompts by the interested Duke) about how his family was lost in a shipwreck, and how fortune has brought him to his doom. We can hardly blame Egeon for his perceptions though. He seems to have been on the wrong end of events for much of his life, and the play’s opening, which consists of several pages of exposition, initially makes things look bleak for him.

Yet, of course, unbeknownst to Egeon, his family lives. His twin sons, and their twin servants, are BOTH in Ephesus even as he speaks of being alone and friendless there. Shakespeare subsequently unfolds the old Plautus style Roman comedy devices of mistaken identities with his two sets of identical twins.

Egeon’s opening monologue has been described as a weak opening, but is it? In the long history of Egeon’s misfortune, a particular tone is established, and a particular kind of expectation as well. By setting the dramatic developments firmly in the past, the monologue seems to lull us into a kind of quietude. We sit or stand listening to the character catalogue his woes and a decided, even pronounced passivity sweeps over us. The effect sets us up for the ensuing comic antics like the rule of threes in telling jokes.

Three strings walk into a tavern. . . the first asks for a drink and is summarily refused. “We don’t serve your kind in here!” the surly barkeep snarls.

The second is rebuked as well. “Listen, no strings! We don’t serve strings in here!”

The third ties himself in a knot and unravels his top, then goes for a drink. The barkeep is in no mood for more of this, and his response is a growl. “Hey! Aren’t you a string!?”

The third string responds, “Nope. I’m a frayed knot.”

As the opening line suggests, the joke employs the classic humour pattern often called “the rule of threes”. The first two strings set up an expectation which the third shatters. Egeon’s long speech, which the Duke punctuates periodically with protests about how he cannot alter the law, or with requests for more information, becomes like the setup in a protracted joke. The woeful Egeon sees his own case as hopeless, and the Duke repeatedly says that, even though he is sympathetic, he is neither free nor inclined to fudge on the letter of the law. Egeon must produce the penalty fee or die.

The opening of Shakespeare’s Othello sets it up as a tragedy too. The initial exchange between Iago and Roderigo (whom he is manipulating) begins this way:

RODERIGO: Tush, never tell me! I take it much unkindly
That thou, Iago, who hast had my purse
As if the strings were thine, shouldst know of this.
IAGO: ’Sblood, but you’ll not hear me!
If ever I did dream of such a matter,
Abhor me.
RODERIGO: Thou toldst me thou didst hold him in thy hate.
IAGO: Despise me
If I do not.

Othello 1.1.1-9

Iago’s opening line begins with an expletive, and compounds a series of negatives to express the idea that Roderigo isn’t listening to him. This is characteristic of Iago, an accomplished parasite and mental predator who lives in a universe of the negative, and who expresses himself only in half truths.

When Orson Welles adapted Othello to film, he felt compelled to change it. He said:

A movie has to have a great opening. It must command attention. The opening of OTHELLO is written for an audience that is just getting quiet. Like all openings in a play, because you don’t want to ever open a play at the top of your bent. But a movie should open at the top of it’s bent, it must, because this damn thing (points to the screen) is dead. The only living thing are the people sitting out here. It’s a projected image, and you cannot bring the thing alive unless you seize the people at the beginning. The riderless horse has to come in. The funeral of Othello and the lynching of Iago, is the riderless horse. It’s as simple as that.*

Here is the opening of the cinematic version:

The Tragedy of Othello: The Moor of Venice. Dir. Orson Welles. Marceau Films/United Artists, 1951.

Where Shakespeare begins his play with Iago’s manipulation of Roderigo, as a kind of preface to events, Welles opens his film with an aftermath, with Othello’s funeral and Iago’s imprisonment. The staged contrast of Iago’s negativity with those around him is transformed into a cinemascape of light and dark in stark contrast.

We can also the contrast between the small and fragile human world and a kind of vast emptiness in which human events take place. This idea appears in many other cinematic openings as well. Here is the opening sequence to The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (Il Buon, Il Brutto, Il Cattivo):

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (Il Buono, Il Brutto, Il Cattivo). Dir. Sergio Leone. Produzioni Europee Associate/United Artists, 1966.

This is the cinematic equivalent of James M. Cain’s opening line “They threw me off the hay truck at around noon.” It is ‘ugly’ Tuco’s “Call me Ishmael” moment, establishing who, what, and where he is. Questions abound, this sequence gives us a good idea of where the horse may be taking Tuco, and where the film may take us.

For the cliché is true that each film, play, story, poem really is a journey. The Spanish early modern playwright, Lope de Vega opened The Knight from Olmedo with Don Allonso (the titular knight) saying, “Let no one speak the name of Love/Who does not eagerly respond to it;/And yet, who is there on this earth/Of ours whom it has left untouched?” (1.1-4)** Clearly, this will be a play about love–and in the best of romantic literary tradition, it is. Star crossed and all.

But what happens if the love and the great emptiness get confused? Or what if they are participatory–even to the point of being part of each other?

Here is Mark Jarman’s “Unholy Sonnet 4”

Amazing to believe that nothingness   
Surrounds us with delight and lets us be,   
And that the meekness of nonentity,   
Despite the friction of the world of sense,   
Despite the leveling of violence,
Is all that matters. All the energy
We force into the matchhead and the city   
Explodes inside a loving emptiness.

Not Dante’s rings, not the Zen zero’s mouth,   
Out of which comes and into which light goes,   
This God recedes from every metaphor,   
Turns the hardest data into untruth,
And fills all blanks with blankness. This love shows   
Itself in absence, which the stars adore.

Jarman, Mark. Questions for Ecclisiastes. Storyline Press, 1997.

“Amazing” is the opening word, followed by “believe” and then “nothingness”. The progression has a kind of orgiastic freedom, an orgasmic sense of letting go, of the “matter” transcending the “friction” of the world of sense–even to the point where it “Explodes inside a loving emptiness.”

Of course, we can go on for more than a lifetime looking at such openings.

Yet, it behooves us to bear openings, prefaces, preludes, first words, first chapters, and first acts in mind. Especially now with such a year as we have all known now showing some signs of possibly shifting. Spring may come quickly, but this shift will take more time, and we remain impatient. The pandemic has been a year long season of loss and shadow, of fear, retreat, and deep concern.

Barbed wire. Author photo.

Now, there are vaccines, and new leaves are budding on the trees. We see them curling against the blue spaces of the sky.

Blossoms. Author photo.

For this is a kind of opening too. Not for the ones we’ve lost, but for those of us left behind. And now, as we gather our old lockdown linen spirits together for a wash, we must look ahead of ourselves. We have the opportunity for renewed vision. What kind of world do we really want? What kind of world will we choose to forge for ourselves, and for the future? Where will this opening take us?

Path. Author photo.

* Orson Welles in a question and answer session after his film of Othello premiered in Boston.

**Vega, Lope de. The Knight from Olmedo (El caballero de Olmedo) in Lope De Vega: Three Major Plays. Translated by Gwynne Edwards. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999, p. 83.

truest poetry is the most feigning

For L.F.

And for j.n., because you asked for poetry, and because poetry is never only itself.

Wet winter branches. California. Author photo.

In his works, Plato makes an argument that the poets should be banished from the Republic.* Actually, it’s a bit more complicated than that, as Plato’s opinions on the subject of poetry and poets seem to be a mixture of admiration and damnation, apprehension and abandonment. It may be better for readers to consult Plato themselves rather than read some incomplete and cursory summary here. Still, part of the problem, as Touchstone tells us in the title quote from As You Like It, is that poetry often misleads or lends a false appearance. It misrepresents. It lies.

TOUCHSTONE:  When a man’s verses cannot be understood,
nor a man’s good wit seconded with the
forward child, understanding, it strikes a man more
dead than a great reckoning in a little room. Truly, I
would the gods had made thee poetical.
AUDREY:  I do not know what “poetical” is. Is it honest
in deed and word? Is it a true thing?
TOUCHSTONE:  No, truly, for the truest poetry is the most
feigning, and lovers are given to poetry, and what
they swear in poetry may be said as lovers they do

As You Like It 3.3.11-21

Touchstone claims that poetry is not honest in deed or word. It is a scarecrow, not of the law, but of truth. Feigning.

Scarecrow outstanding in his field. Warwickshire. Author photo.

Yet. . .yet. Yet, although poetry may be argued to misrepresent ‘reality’, in another sense it becomes difficult to imagine anything representing the multifaceted nature of human existence and understanding so completely. Here’s Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who passed away this week at the age of 101:

Constantly Risking Absurdity (#15)

by Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Constantly risking absurdity
                                             and death
            whenever he performs
                                        above the heads
                                                            of his audience
   the poet like an acrobat
                                 climbs on rime
                                          to a high wire of his own making
and balancing on eyebeams
                                     above a sea of faces
             paces his way
                               to the other side of day
    performing entrechats
                               and sleight-of-foot tricks
and other high theatrics
                               and all without mistaking
                     any thing
                               for what it may not be

       For he’s the super realist
                                     who must perforce perceive
                   taut truth
                                 before the taking of each stance or step
in his supposed advance
                                  toward that still higher perch
where Beauty stands and waits
                                     with gravity
                                                to start her death-defying leap

      And he
             a little charleychaplin man
                                           who may or may not catch
               her fair eternal form
                                     spreadeagled in the empty air
                  of existence

Ferlinghetti, Lawrence. “Constantly Risking Absurdity (#15)”. A Coney Island of the Mind, poems. New York: New Directions, 1958.

Mourning angel. Cemetery in Lurs, France. Author photo.

Poetry constantly risks absurdity. But what is such a risk in an absurd world? Here’s a poem we have discussed at length:


by Seamus Heaney

Between my finger and my thumb   
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.

Under my window, a clean rasping sound   
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:   
My father, digging. I look down

Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds   
Bends low, comes up twenty years away   
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills   
Where he was digging.

The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft   
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked,
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

By God, the old man could handle a spade.   
Just like his old man.

My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.

The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.

Heaney, Seamus. “Digging”. Death of a Naturalist. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux (Macmillan), 1966.

Poetry, both loss and creation speaks beyond condition. Past margin, circumscription, and weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable uses. Rather, poetry is a calculus of language, embracing and encompassing arcs, curves, movements, and triumphs. Blushing and hemmering which tongue, hearing, and understanding might never otherwise comprehend. Without it, we were barren, empty, ragged saw grass ranging over the dry erosions of our being.

It helps us come to terms with passages and passings, the hard grit at the bottom of life’s seams. Seems. Bending words to make sense of the senseless, in that way representing the real beyond the words. Digging graves, memories, words. Angels of creation sprung from turned earth, from inklines traced across paper, across the skin. Within. Outside.

Moments. My remarkable mother in law passing away:

Here is rain.

Multitudinous waters, snow, thunder, the cat, Frankie, 

crying for water or for food.

Cold in, cold out.  Spring days

Summer days spliced

with long icicle cold snaps. 

Flowers trees Canada geese confused, 

flying every which way.

She died the way some of us 

might have wanted

to go ourselves:

Champion dancer bending 

gracefully beneath a lightning stroke.

Bringing the family together once more

in the hospitality part of the hospital

hospice room, so they could meet

and talk, while she walked 

deeper into the coma forest.

Nurses hush hush soft smile

unobtrusive turning, testing, 

checking, pastor stopping,

T—- with his guitar,

dealing in his way.

Helping us all.

Singing her beautifully

Out of this existence.

Narratives shape my life too,

now bended on another arc

in some or other curve 

to who knows where what when.

For AJN. Poem by the author.

Gloaming. Author photo.

Poetry is memory and expectation fused together. It’s Eliot’s April, breeding Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing Memory and desire, stirring Dull roots with spring rain. “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” Shall I? So many summer days I remember. Summer days in profusion. Lilacs overflowing the edges of an improvised bowl.

We long for more. We long for things to stay, not to recede. We long to keep the loves we have, not lose them. Perfect heroes paddling rafts against the stormy waters off the beach. Perfect artists, poets. Perfect meals and meetings. Lamberts. Oxford. Across the South, the North, and over the fetching prairies of our own bygone Middle West. Saker. The Awful House. Gum, iced tea, and kicking things to pieces–the gold of personal history poured over our existence. Christmas in the Florida pine flats. Dragons. Tolkein by the lake. Fishing. The Old Thatch Tavern.

The Old Thatch Tavern. Stratford upon Avon. Photo from

We call for more. Cheeses. Travels. More coming home. We dream of days yet to be. If we must speak in poetry, as we must, let roads keep us healthy until we meet again.

The Pass of the Roaring

by Norman MacCaig

Such comfortless places comfort me.

Not my body but I am fed by these ravens

And I’m nourished by the drib-dab waters

That fingerling through the harsh deer grass.

The tall cliffs unstun my mind

Thank God for a place where no history passes.

Is this ghoulish? Is it the vampire me

Or grandfathers and greatgrandfathers

Specklessly flowing my veins that bury

A hummingbird tongue in these gulfs of space

And suck from limestone with delicate greed

A delicate vintage, the blood of grace?

Books vaporize in my lightning mind.

Pennies and pounds become a tribal

Memory. Hours assert their rightness,

Escaping like doves through their cotes of clocks

And lame philosophies founder in bogs

The stink of summer in the armpit of rockfolds.

There’s always a returning. A cottage glows

By a dim sea and there I’ll slump by the fireside –

And another grace will gather, from human

Intercommunications, a grace

Not to be distinguished from the one that broods

In fingerling waters and gulfs of space.

MacCaig, Norman. “The Pass of the Roaring”. The Poems of Norman MacCaig. Edinburgh: Polygon, 2009.

Returning. Warwickshire sunset. Author photo.

We request. We ask for more. Another summer. Truth. Holy vindication. Sometimes yes. Sometimes no. As Basho notes:

The fifteenth, just as innkeeper predicted, it rains,

here’s the harvest moon

good old Hokkoku weather

don’t depend on it.

Basho. Haiku from chapter 51. Back Roads to Far Towns. Trans. Cid Corman and Kamaike Susumu. Buffalo: White Pine Press, 2004.

Harvest moon over trees. Author photo.

No depending on the weather, on tomorrow. Against the greater currents of the cosmos, we bend like reeds. Sometimes we break. Still we hope against hope, against our doubts, against our fears. With all the powers of love, we hope to weather this storm too.

Urging always: open hands. Let pursuing demons go. Darkness enough in one life’s range of night. Let these others fall away. We do not need them. There are always more. Dharma will remain what it is. A rat. A luminosity:

“Enlightenment is like the moon reflected in the water. The moon does not get wet, nor is the water broken. Although its light is wide and great, the moon is refleced even a puddle a inch wide. The whole moon and the entire sky are reflected in dewdrops on the grass, or even in one drop of water. Enlightenment does not divide you, just as the moon does not break the water. You cannot hinder enlightenment, just as a drop of water does not hinder the moon in the sky. The depth of the drop is the height of the moon. Each reflection, however long or short its duration, manifests the vastness of the dewdrop and realizes the limitlessness of the moonlight in the sky. We gain enlightenment like the moon reflecting in the water. The moon does not get wet, nor is the water broken.”

Dogen. “Genjo Koan” fragment. Trans. Shunryu Suzuki. Dōgen’s Genjo Koan: Three Commentaries. Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2011.

Dōgen’s moon. Author photo.

Here is what I’ve said already, said again. Our childhoods, dreams, crowns and sceptres, snakes and ladders, all may not return to us. Ryōkan wrote:

Calling out to me

As they return home:

wild geese at night.

Ryōkan. Dewdrops on a Lotus Leaf. Trans. John Stevens. Boston: Shambala, 2004.

Geese go home. Things go home. Bright and brief, experience remains a nightsound. A cricket at the end of summer. Margins of memory are old coats hallway closets with winters not what they used to be. Still, revelation waits in every step:

At night, deep in the mountains,

I sit in meditation.

The affairs of men never reach here:

Everything is quiet and empty,

All the incense has been swallowed up by the endless night.

My robe has become a garment of dew.

Unable to sleep, I walk out into the woods —

Suddenly, above the highest peak, the full moon appears.

Ryōkan. Ibid.

Shakespeare writes of how memory’s pageant dissolves. As here:

Truth may seem but cannot be;
Beauty brag but ’tis not she;
Truth and beauty buried be.

Shakespeare, William. “The Phoenix and the Turtle”, lines 62-4.

That old life tapestry. Unicorns. Poetic fabric. Dust. Grecian urns.

We have spoken in verses for so long, I have forgotten whole languages. How are tongues supposed to swim? I know few other ways to speak. Few ways to ask. Feeding rage and silence, pulsing stillness of the dharma underneath. All the ways boil down to this.

Here again is this:

Iggy Pop (quoting Dylan Thomas). Free. Caroline International/Loma Vista. 2019.**

You’ve heard it. You know it. One more autumn. More if we can manage, but at the very least one more. So many variances within the clew when the line’s drawn taut. Airfoil. From form to form, and tumbling down life’s hills. As this:

Sonnet 18

by William Shakespeare

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature’s changing course, untrimm’d;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st;
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Yorkshire. Author photo.

Take that life giving sonnet and tumble it a bit. Knock its rough edges off with the other rocks of the world. It may come out like this:

Incandescent War Sonnet Poem

by Bernadette Mayer

Even before I saw the chambered nautilus
I wanted to sail not in the us navy
Tonight I’m waiting for you, your letter
At the same time his letter, the view of you
By him and then by me in the park, no rhymes
I saw you, this is in prose, no it’s not
Sitting with the molluscs & anemones in an
Empty autumn enterprise baby you look pretty
With your long eventual hair, is love king?
What’s this? A sonnet? Love’s a babe we know that
I’m coming up, I’m coming, Shakespeare only stuck
To one subject but I’ll mention nobody said
You have to get young Americans some ice cream
In the artificial light in which she woke

Mayer, Bernadette. “Incandescent War Poem Sonnet” from A Bernadette Mayer Reader. New York: New Directions, 1992.

For who will find these forms? Others, in the burning world will find their own. Not ours. Not what we have yet to find. Dribble castles on next summer’s beach. Destroyed in the very making.

First Tango in Lisbon

Sienna is red dirt, some men just want the fight,

gunpowder, tea, revelry after war. Hours, water &

salt. Where we go to bed is never really sorted.

All for some of the old letters. Dead alphabet

ghosts keep popping up asking for a softer place

& they keep haunting because they keep things 

alive. Hunting something else not to eat, to plant.

Dried flowers & lost seeds, & then the calendula.

Kingdom shadows when the suns start going down

as geese’ feathers brush new moons by eyelashes

in old worlds, old freedoms & gadflys & scales.

Weight of small fucking world’s like those born of 

large orb fairs. Careful of that Old Magic. It isn’t as

brittle as one may think. Watch those porcelain faces, 

They are watching Us. They’ve seen everything trade

their visions between like a shell game. Don’t play,

or be able to laugh generations away. Like an errant

thumb holding a cheap valentine smudging the

gallantry into night on the margins of the message.

Really it’s just about better sleep, warmer blood, 

almost peace, wash it, crawl into it & go home. 

Nichols, Josh. Private correspondence. 2021. Reprinted with the author’s permission.

Douglas castle remains. Lanarkshire, Scotland. Author photo.

Better sleep. Time and old magic, when destroyed, passes into ruin. Into sleep. Into finding.

Let poetry lie. Like all feigning, it lends us the orb and sceptre of truth, making us kings and queens of the world. Regal, commanding, full of grace, impoverished, throneless, wandering. Sense and hit the nerves. Carpal tunnel fishes thimmering freely in the cords of our arms. Old trout in a mountain pool or beneath a village bridge. Aching. Ageing. Seen it all. Seen nothing yet.

*Have a look especially at Republic II, 377-83, Republic III, 386-404, Sophist, 234-7, and Laws II, 658-63, Laws VII, 800-12, and Laws VIII, 829.

**Thomas, Dylan. “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Goodnight”. The Poems of Dylan Thomas. New York: New Directions, 1952.

Fortune speed us!

Distant weather prophecy. Author photo.

It has been a while, I know. Sometimes, Fortune speeds us. At other times, it slows us down. Yet, here we are.

Most often personified as a female, Fortune tends to be fickle, just as the changeability of luck or fortune may seem to be either good or bad. As Hamlet says to Rosencranz, “there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.” (2.2.269-70) This blog has previously mentioned this along with the old story of the farmer and his son which also reflects this flexible perspective. (For the story itself, and a couple of great clips from Harry Potter movies, please have a look at the post entitled “As good luck would have it”. )

When we anthropomorphise an aspect or multiple aspects of human experience, the resultant personae often assume individual tempramental qualities which amplify the nature of our own human emotional responses. Love, for example, when we think of ‘her’ as the goddess Aphrodite or Venus, tends to be breathtakingly beautiful and alluring, but she can also be jealous, vain, and inconstant.

In the case of Venus/Aphrodite, one of the goddess’ lovers is Mars/Ares, the god of War. Like war, the god that represents it may be virile and active, but also angry and grim. Depending on the particular narrative, Love and War are the parents of Cupid, the blind child god who, armed with a bow, shoots arrows of attraction into unwitting mortals, sometimes in haphazard ways. Cupid tends to be especially associated with physical attraction, and the sexual aspects of love–often representing the sudden ‘bolt out of the blue’ that can be love at first sight.* Mars and Venus are also the parents of Concordia, as love and war may eventually find a kind of resolution in peaceful agreement.

Fortuna/Tyche, the goddess of luck and prosperity, is also sometimes (but not always) pictured as blind, because fortune may smile equally on the deserving and the less deserving. Like her father (who is usually thought of as Jupiter/Zeuss**), she could bestow bounteous favours, but she also remains notoriously capricious about it. The medieval writer, Boethius, wrote his influential work, The Consolation of Philosophy, when he was imprisoned and sentenced to die in 524 c.e. by Theodoric the Great, the king of the Ostrogoths. Because he had served Theodoric for decades, it is not suprising that Boethius’ work reflects a kind of astonished bitterness at the unfairness in life. In an attempt at consolation, Philosophy tells the author that Fortune is cruel–raising people up only to subsequently dash them down with a turn of Fortune’s wheel.

Indeed, Lady Luck’s inconstancy has been a trope for centuries, remaining with us today. American journalist Damon Runyon’s portraits of gamblers and gangsters in his 1932 short story collection, Guys and Dolls, was subsequently made into a Broadway musical by Frank Loesser, Abe Burrows, and Jo Swerling in 1950 (opening in the West End in 1953). In the 1955 motion picture version of the musical, Marlon Brando (as gambler Sky Masterson) pleads with lady luck to remain true to him as he risks love and money on a single roll of the dice:

Marlon Brando in Guys and Dolls. Metro Goldwyn-Mayer, 1955.

With another successful Broadway revival in 2009 and a 2015 revival in London, Guys and Dolls remains consistently popular with theatre audiences–illustrating parallels between love and fortune, highlighting how each may be like a game of chance.

The idea of fickle Fortune, however, predates Boethius, as may be seen in this passage from Seneca’s 1st century tragedy, Agammemnon:

O Fortune, who dost bestow the throne’s high boon with mocking hand, in dangerous and doubtful state thou settest the too exalted. Never have sceptres obtained calm peace or certain tenure; care on care weighs them down, and ever do fresh storms vex their souls.*** 

So, the idea of ‘life’s vicissitudes’ was well known (and may have been a cliché) in the classical world as much as it is in ours. Even then, Fortuna’s spinning wheel precipitated the ups and downs of human experience.

French Miniaturist (15th century). Fortune and Her Wheel: Illustration from Vol. 1 of Boccaccio’s De Casibus Virorum Illustrium (On the Fates of Famous Men) (1467, Glasgow, Glasgow University LIbrary). Internet image. Public domain.

Neither is the idea of Fortune’s wheel limited solely to western culture. In a scene from Akira Kurosawa’s film adaptation of Macbeth, Macbeth and Banquo meet a spirit in the forest–a spirit who condenses the different (but overlapping) ideas of Shakespeare’s three witches, and the three classical thread spinning fates, into a single figure with a spinning wheel:

Throne of Blood (蜘蛛巣城, Kumonosu-jō, “Spider Web Castle”), Toho, 1957.

Fortune’s wheel has become such an iconic mytheme that it is even the subject of a tarot card–the widely known fortune telling deck which prefigures the modern deck of playing cards and is comprised of often archetypal images. (Making it into the tarot deck always seems to have been a marker of success in making the bid to become an archetypal icon):

“Wheel of Fortune” from the Rider Waite Tarot deck of 1909.

Fair enough, Ghost, you may say, but what about Shakespeare? Isn’t this a Shakespeare blog? Well, yes it is.

This post’s title line comes from Shakespeare’s play The Winter’s Tale, and it is spoken by Prince Florizel of Bohemia. Having unwittingly revealed his love for Perdita in front of his father, the disguised King Polixenes, Florizel finds himself confronted by an angry father who forbids his marriage. (Neither Florizel nor Polixenes know at this point that Perdita, who has been raised as a shepherdess, is actually the princess of the neighbouring kingdom of Sicily.) In order to escape the king’s judgment and his wrath, Florizel and Perdita board a ship to Sicily and head into their destiny.

Yet, Shakespeare’s works are so replete with ideas and expressions of Fortune that this instance is hardly unique. The well known Sonnet 29 begins with the line, “When in disgrace with Fortune and men’s eyes, I all alone beweep my outcast state…”. In Romeo and Juliet, after Romeo’s departure from her bedchamber, Juliet cries out:

O Fortune, Fortune, all men call thee fickle.
If thou art fickle, what dost thou with him
That is renowned for faith? Be fickle, Fortune,
For then I hope thou wilt not keep him long,
But send him back.

Romeo and Juliet 3.5.60-4

In a pointed example of fickle Fortune, the deeply in love Juliet says this just before her mother enters to tell her that she shall be wed to Paris on the coming Thursday.

Echoing the sentiment and circumstances in Seneca’s tragedy, Brutus, in Julius Caesar says these lines just before the battle at Philippi that will crush his hopes of victory in the Roman civil war:

Our legions are brim full, our cause is ripe.
The enemy increaseth every day;
We, at the height, are ready to decline.
There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves
Or lose our ventures.

Julius Caesar 4.3.246-55

Spoiler alert (in case anyone reading this didn’t know), in Juliet’s case, Fortune will not send Romeo back to her. Instead, he will be banished for slaying Tybalt. For Brutus, taking the figurative tide to the Battle of Philippi will lose his ventures indeed.

As in life, so in Shakespeare. The plays and poems are so full of expressions about Fortune and Fortune’s turns both good and bad, that it might take volumes to sort through them all. Mentioned only once each in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Venus and Adonis, and Love’s Labour’s Lost, the word appears only twice in The Passionate Pilgrim. Yet, it appears forty three times in Antony and Cleopatra. Does this tell us something about that play, something about the playwright’s frame of mind, or perhaps something about the times in which each work was written? We can only speculate.

In the end, Fortune’s fluctuations can be abrupt and dramatic, and even though Fortuna is most often represented as female, fortune’s agents may have any gender. Sometimes, changing one’s fate can be a simple matter of talking to the right person at the right time:

Casablanca, Warner Brothers, 1942.

For all of us, life has moments where we require a bit of help. When we find ourselves able to give, let’s hope we all will be like Bogart’s character Rick.

Like the tide, Fortune fluctuates around us constantly.

Somewhere, waves shush against rocks hundreds of feet below the broken guardrail.

A crumpled car teeters, front wheels off the ledge. Stalled motor ticking. Steam. Smell of fuel.

Above, the sound of a passing car.

Farther down along the coast, scattered houses cling to places where the highway shoulders off the bluff. Western windows glare back the sunset, and already a few lights are coming on as the sun sinks.

Elsewhere, someone buys a lottery ticket, rolls dice, picks up a hand at cards, makes an offer on a house, asks for a date, makes a souffle.

We still see her, standing aloof in the wind, sun rising in one place and setting somewhere else.

Wheel turning. Engine ticking. We’re on a ledge. Increasingly violent weather threatens our very existence. We need to decide what we’re going to do and do it. Really commit. There’s no more time.

The Italian Job, Paramount Pictures, 1969.

Let’s hope we can make the right kinds of choices. It’s always nice to get the gold. But let’s also be kind and giving to each other along the way, no matter where the bus may stop.

*As an interesting sidebar, Cupid himself is not immune to love. A story tells us of a princess named Psyche whose beauty became so renowned that Venus became jealous. When the goddess sent her son Cupid to punish the princess, he fell in love instead, and the godling and Psyche began a secret love affair which (as related by Lucius Apuleius) makes a thrilling tale. The name Psyche is often translated as “soul” but also suggests something alone the lines of “animatory breath”, perhaps the closest idea in the western pantheon to the idea of qi (氣) in classical Chinese thought, prana (प्राण) in Hindu philosophy, or even Níłch’i (Holy Wind) in Diné/Navajo cosmology*–albeit this is not at all to suggest that any of these concepts derived from disparate cultures can or should be understood as being identical.This does NOT mean to suggest that any of these concepts derived from disparate cultures can or should be understood as being identical. These ideas are more subtle, multidimensional, and nuanced than a simple English translation can adequately express. For those who are interested, information on 氣 and प्राण may be found in many places and an internet search will provide a good starting bibliography. More thorough discussions of Níłch’i in Navajo thought may be found in: Macneley, James Kale. Holy Wind in Navajo Philosophy. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1981. and also in Farella, John R. The Main Stalk: a Synthesis of Navajo Philosophy. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 2007. It is good to bear in mind that many Diné show a marked reluctance to speak openly about such things, and I don’t blame them. Sometimes, the ‘wind’ within one can whisper different kinds of things, or one can listen wrongly. In these cases, the breath may turn obverse, and the person in whom that wind resides may become something else. Asking about such topics may not only be rude, but also spiritually dangerous.

**In some cases, Fortuna’s father is listed as Mercury/Hermes, perhaps in an attempt to reconcile her own mercurial temprament with prevailing mythological structure.

***Seneca, Lucius Annaeus. “SENECA, AGAMEMNON.” Seneca the Younger, Agamemnon – Theoi Classical Texts Library. (From Seneca. Tragedies . Trans. Frank Justus Miller. Loeb Classical Library Volumes. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 1917.)

Aurora’s harbinger

The edge of Dawn’s saffron mantle over water. Author photo.

The darkest threshold at the very end night marks the verge of approaching dawn. Dawn brings the light, of course, although the quality of the coming day may be variable. Stormy days may be presaged by the mariner’s old ‘red sky at morning’*, while a dawn chorus of birdsong may usher in the loveliest of days. Dawns may be circumstantial as well as temporal, as in the dawn of new eras or ages, or the dawns of new political regimes. As a liminal moment, a kind of marginal field between between changing states, dawn marks the edge of the mythical forest, the beached margent of the sea, the ephemeral nature of ringlets danced to the whistling wind. In terms of universal energetic flux, Yang’s ascension through the sinking Yin defines the morning. It may also be a moment when the magnetic field inverts and inverts the understanding of the world.

At the beginning of Romeo and Juliet, Romeo steals into the forest at the very margin of Benvolio’s perception:

Madam, an hour before the worshiped sun
Peered forth the golden window of the east,
A troubled mind drove me to walk abroad,
Where underneath the grove of sycamore
That westward rooteth from this city side,
So early walking did I see your son.
Towards him I made, but he was ’ware of me
And stole into the covert of the wood.

Romeo and Juliet 1.1.120-7

Romeo avoids his friend, shunning both Benvolio’s company and the sunrise. For although Romeo emerges from the woods at dawn, he continues to flee the growing light. His father notes that in his dim mood, even after day arrives, Romeo prefers the darkness:

Many a morning hath he there been seen,
With tears augmenting the fresh morning’s dew,
Adding to clouds more clouds with his deep sighs.
But all so soon as the all-cheering sun
Should in the farthest east begin to draw
The shady curtains from Aurora’s bed,
Away from light steals home my heavy son
And private in his chamber pens himself,
Shuts up his windows, locks fair daylight out,
And makes himself an artificial night.
Black and portentous must this humor prove,
Unless good counsel may the cause remove.

Romeo and Juliet 1.1.134-45

Clouds locking daylight out. Author photo.

This brings to mind another passage, from another one of Shakespeare’s plays, which speaks specifically to an affinity for darkness. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, wishing to conclude the night’s enchantments, the fairy king Oberon addresses his servant with a list of things which are yet to be concluded. Puck responds with a warning about time which describes how the guilty dead shun the coming dawn:

My fairy lord, this must be done with haste,
For night’s swift dragons cut the clouds full fast,
And yonder shines Aurora’s harbinger,
At whose approach, ghosts wand’ring here and
Troop home to churchyards. Damnèd spirits all,
That in crossways and floods have burial,
Already to their wormy beds are gone.
For fear lest day should look their shames upon,
They willfully themselves exile from light
And must for aye consort with black-browed night.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream 3.2.399-409.

In this blog, we have already visited this passage, noting how Puck’s caution spirals curiously into a meditation on the cursed dead retreating from light. The dead begin to flee at the very approach of the morning star, Phosphor (actually the planet Venus, but the star is not to be confused with the goddess in this case), in spite of the fact that Aurora, the dawn goddess, has not yet arrived. The light of the ‘harbinger’ remains far dimmer than that of the actual rising sun, but it still sends the night wandering dead back to their graves.

Romeo, like Puck’s damned spirits, eschews the dawn, avoids the light. Although Romeo’s exile may be more voluntary, it is in some sense even more oppressive than the ghosts’ “exile from light”. Romeo’s chamber is like an earthen “wormy bed” as he “shuts up his windows” and “locks fair daylight out”. The dragons who draw night’s chariot do not cut the clouds as they do in Puck’s verse. Instead, Romeo’s sighs add “clouds to more clouds”, and his humour itself becomes “black and portentous”. Romeo’s sorrow is like shame, secret with a hint of humiliation about it, like shames which ghosts would not reveal to daylight.

When Benvolio asks him the cause of his sorrow, Romeo suggests that his grief arises from being out of favour with her with whom he is in love:

. . . What sadness lengthens Romeo’s hours?
Not having that which, having, makes them short.
Out of her favor where I am in love.

Romeo and Juliet 1.1.168-73

A bit odd and evasive, Romeo’s response initially sounds like lovesickness, with his sorrow having an overprotested quality. His monosyllabic “Out” makes sense to him, although it doesn’t quite explain the situation to Benvolio (or to us), so Benvolio presses for further qualification. Romeo’s answer ‘Out of her favour where I am in love’ seems awkward. We understand the sense, and the ‘where’ is a convention of the time, love possibly being understood as locative in a certain–being centred in the heart, in the beloved, or even in the gaze in some cases. Love may seem to be located someplace.

But there is also contrast here. Benvolio’s question is specifically temporal, about what “sadness lenghens Romeo’s hours”. Romeo’s answer centres on the locative. He speaks of being “Out of her favour where [he is] in love”, as though his love or his love’s favour might be actual places. Yet, some readers may note that even when we consider poetic conventions, romantic love ultimately tends to be personal, focused not on a ‘where’, but on a specific ‘who’ or ‘whom’. The object of romantic love is almost universally a person and not a place.

This suggests that Romeo may be speaking about something which he doesn’t fully understand. He seems to have an idea about love’s suffering, but he also seems to have little real experience with it. The crux of the matter may be that he is neither in or out of love, but that romantic love itself is missing from his life and he feels this keenly.

The old convention says that Romeo, at this point in the play, is in love with the idea of being in love, but it may be more accurate to say that he is acutely sensible of an exprience that escapes him. This is about to change, of course, for when Romeo first sees Juliet (which happens at night, at the Capulets’ party), she suddenly appears like a beacon in his life. In Franco Zefirelli’s 1968 film version, we see how the dancers at the Capulet ball suddenly part to reveal her as we watch through Romeo’s eyes.

Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey in Franco Zeffirelli’s Production of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. United States: Paramount Pictures Corp., 1968. Dir. Franco Zeffirelli.

Compare this moment with the aquarium scene from the 1996 film, where Romeo and Juliet’s eyes meet through the fish tank as the fish part to reveal them to each other. Both films offer us a moment of breathless revelation.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes in William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet, 20th Century Fox, 1996. Dir. Baz Luhrmann.

If we note the lyrics in the latter version, we hear a song about seeing stars–known for “punching holes in the darkness” as Robert Louis Stevenson reportedly said of a lamplighter he watched from his sickbed as a boy.**

Yet, Juliet dispels Romeo’s darkness not as starlight, not as a dim harbinger of dawn, but as a brilliant light against which other lights pale in comparison:

O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!


The incandescence is sudden and complete. So much for Romeo’s darkness. Still, those making the moth to flame argument may continue to argue that to Romeo, love itself is locative, citing one of Romeo’s most famous lines to prove it:

But soft, what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the East, and Juliet is the sun.


Yet, as the dawn marks the liminal moment of change from night to day, so does Romeo’s “East” transform as lovelight dawns within him. First, the dark itself is dispelled along with night and the moon:

Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,
Who is already sick and pale with grief
That thou, her maid, art far more fair than she.
Be not her maid since she is envious.
Her vestal livery is but sick and green,
And none but fools do wear it. Cast it off.


Marking the liminal, the margin, the edge of transformation, this dawn within Romeo is that moment of actual change. Once we have slain the moon and cast off the clothing of night, we suddently see our subject clearly. At this moment, Romeo’s confused conflation of love with light and location resolves into the personal:

It is my lady. O, it is my love!
O, that she knew she were!


Of course, we suspect that Juliet already knows. Shakespeare has telegraphed this to us. When Romeo and Juliet first talk, and first kiss, at the party, their lines to each other famously craft a sonnet:

ROMEO, taking Juliet’s hand
If I profane with my unworthiest hand
This holy shrine, the gentle sin is this:
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.
Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
Which mannerly devotion shows in this;
For saints have hands that pilgrims’ hands do touch,
And palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss.
Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?
Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.
O then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do.
They pray: grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.
Saints do not move, though grant for prayers’ sake.
Then move not while my prayer’s effect I take.
He kisses her.
Thus from my lips, by thine, my sin is purged.
Then have my lips the sin that they have took.
Sin from my lips? O trespass sweetly urged!
Give me my sin again.He kisses her.
JULIET You kiss by th’ book.

Romeo and Juliet 1.5.104-21

Here, we see the moment in Baz Luhrman’s film from above:

Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes in William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet, 20th Century Fox, 1996. Dir. Baz Luhrmann.

And here, we see the meeting scene in Private Romeo, where the final line of the sonnet is truncated:

Seth Numrich and Matt Doyle in Private Romeo, Frameline Pictures, 2011. Dir. Alan Brown.

Naturally, we set aside a number of considerations in order to walk through these lines in this cursory fashion. There is always much more to see. Still, it behooves us to remember that perhaps the most striking thing about Romeo’s recognition and resolution is exactly that–just how striking it is. It seems so resonant with the ways in which our human loves and infatuations take hold. How sharply our realization may focus our being, even to the point of temporarily robbing us of outiside motivation and of our reason. We suddenly see with new clarity and understanding, while lights pale in comparison with the new light before us. In this sense, love gives where it takes away.

When love’s incandescence robs us of our sense of propriety, and even of our geographical and (sometimes in mild and temporary ways) our moral compass. We may find ourselves crashing private events, or climbing over orchard walls, and perhaps waiting anywhere where we might catch some glimpse of our beloved. The world and its compass seem to recede and dim in comparison to the light which we perceive before us as we suddenly find ourselves drawn to an ineluctable brightness. This beacon gives us hope and purpose.

In contrast, night represents a loveless spiritual darkness. It threatens us with a vacancy, an emptiness of love, and potentially of everything. Bottom, the character who (often unwittingly) speaks a great deal of the truth to be found in Shakespeare, expresses it best when he plays the hero Pyramus, who thinks that Thisbe has forgotten to meet him near Ninus’ tomb:

BOTTOM, as Pyramus
O grim-looked night! O night with hue so black!
O night, which ever art when day is not!
O night! O night! Alack, alack, alack!
I fear my Thisbe’s promise is forgot.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream 5.1.179-82.

In striving to make up his rhyme and metre, Bottom repeatedly uses the word “alack” signifying “a lack”, an emptiness, a void. Night represents the lack of love, the lack of human contact and intimacy, the lack of purpose and of joy. In the night of the soul, the human stands alone in the starkest sense, alone in a black, starless universe, a soul in fear, standing against utter emptiness.

At such moments, the stars themselves, with their glimmering light, offer hope that night may end, that light will eventually overcome the darkness. Phosphor’s indications aside, the stars do not bring dawn. They merely promise that light still exists, even at the darkest times. The idea is so ingrained in our consciousness that it pervades western esoterica as well, extending far into popular conceptions of what many perceive as spiritual. For example, the star card in the western tarot deck–a deck of archetypal mythic images often used for fortune telling–typically suggests the idea of ‘hope’.

From The Rider-Waite Tarot deck, drawn in 1909 by Pamela Coleman Smith. Arguably the most iconic and popular tarot deck in the world, the cards are widely available.

Coleman Smith’s drawing depicts a feminine figure, surrounded by a starry sky, who seems to have come down to pour life giving water on fertile ground where flowers bloom. She also replenishes the pool or spring. Life and promise are abundant. In a mythic sense, stars may bring not only hope, but also bring us back to the promise of love. In a well known song that has been recorded by many artists, a nighttime field transforms into “a field of white” with a kiss.

Patti Page from the Patti Page Show, 1956.***

Returning to Puck’s speech, however, we remember that the harbinger of dawn is not a mere star, but the star–the morning star, Phosphor. Harold Brooks notes that a ‘harbinger’ was “originally an officer sent ahead to purvey lodgings for a great personage” (who, in this case, is Aurora, the goddess of the dawn).**** The dragons drawing night’s chariot cut the clouds in the sense that they have not only cut across the clouded sky, but in Shakespeare’s way of sometimes conveying several senses of a word at once, the dragons have also literally cut the very fabric of the clouds, parting the darkness, removing obscurations to make the morning star visible.

Night’s dragons. Author photo.

These dragons, after all, are things of night, the dark counterpart to the steeds that draw Helios’ sun chariot. Brooks notes that, in Marlowe, dragons pull the chariot of the moon:

Nor that night-wandring pale and watrie starre,
(When yawning dragons draw her thirling carre,
From Latmus mount up to the glomie skie,
Where crown’d with blazing light and majestie,
She proudly sits) more over-rules the flood,
Than she the hearts of those that neere her stood.

Marlowe, Christopher. ‘Hero and Leander’, 1.106-11. Widely available in single editions and as part of The Complete Works of Christopher Marlowe.

These night dragons appear elsewhere in Shakespeare too. In Troilus and Cressida, the ‘ugly night’ becomes a dragon at the moment of the noble Hector’s death:

Look, Hector, how the sun begins to set,
How ugly night comes breathing at his heels.
Even with the vail and dark’ning of the sun
To close the day up, Hector’s life is done.
I am unarmed. Forgo this vantage, Greek.
Strike, fellows, strike! This is the man I seek.
[The Myrmidons kill Hector]

Troilus and Cressida 5.9.5-10

Moments later, Achilles says, “The dragon wing of night o’erspreads the earth”, signifying both the end of battle and the the deeper darkness brought on by Hector’s shameful death and even foreshadowing the fall of Troy.

Similarly, in Cymbeline, the villainous Iachimo rises from his hiding place within the trunk in Imogen’s bedchamber, having hidden there in order that he may subsequently convince her intended, Posthumus, that he has slept with her. Iachimo notes the details of her bedchamber, notices a mole on her breast, and steals a bracelet that Posthumus has given her–all details that he knows will make Posthumus doubt her chastity. Then Iachimo hides in the trunk again, to await the morning, saying:

Swift, swift, you dragons of the night, that dawning
May bare the raven’s eye. I lodge in fear.
Though this a heavenly angel, hell is here.

Cymbeline 2.2.52-4

These are truly moments of darkness, deeds meant for the figurative dead of night. The murder of an unarmed man by a group of combat hardened warriors, and a sleeping woman disadvantaged, eye raped, by a scheming man so that he may win a bet with her intended. The stuff of sorrows. Moans of empty days and nights. Tattered scraps of old newspaper shivering in tall grass.

The dragons may have been derived from those that pulled Medea’s chariot as she helps Jason win the Golden Fleece before he abandons her. She subsequently murders the sons she bore him for his betrayal, although there are various endings to the tale. Herodotus says she changed her name and resettled elsewhere.

Detail of Medea’s dragon chariot from a painting depicting her flight from Corinth. Late classical painter, ca. 400 bce. Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, Ohio.

The stars are not twinkling so/ brightly in vain,/ and it must be at your command that my chariot, drawn by/ winged dragons,/ is ready to take me’

Ovid. Metamorphoses 7. 217-9

The people despair. Potentates stand up and lie. People storm the capitol. People die. We may treasure the illusion of rhetorical independence over the working challenges of union. We craft the end of our own days and nights. Sometimes, in following the rhetoric of remaking, we craft the end of our own world.

Yet, morning comes again, for now, albeit it may be with fallen cities or with lovers meeting in a tomb. We seem to keep fighting. Fighting for Juliet to know that she’s our love, fighting for Thisbe not to forget her promise, fighting for our loves, our lives. Striving to find honest politics, respect, and, yes, love in the world. Brings Seamus Heaney’s poem to mind:

Red winter berries. Author photo.

The Haw Lantern

The wintry haw is burning out of season,
crab of the thorn, a small light for small people,
wanting no more from them but that they keep
the wick of self-respect from dying out,
not having to blind them with illumination.

But sometimes when your breath plumes in the frost
it takes the roaming shape of Diogenes
with his lantern, seeking one just man;
so you end up scrutinized from behind the haw
he holds up at eye-level on its twig,
and you flinch before its bonded pith and stone,
its blood-prick that you wish would test and clear you,
its pecked-at ripeness that scans you, then moves on.

Seamus Heaney from “The Haw Lantern”, winner of the Nobel Prize in 1995.*****

We stand against the cold winter, then against the fires of summer, and then against the winter again. Hawthorn berries, glowing against the frozen snow. As if to say, we must become our own harbingers, our own morning stars. We usher in our own early born Dawn, reaching rosy fingered into the shadows to dispel them.

For Dawn gives us the promises of life. Driving off the dragons, we wait for the orchard to bear fruit. We wait for a light in the window. We wait for compassion, friendship, understanding. We wait for love. We are the lark and not the nightingale, but we are not a lark of parting. We are a chorus, joined upon the first streaks of the morn–birdsong of the newborn day.

Perhaps we gash our own gold vermillion light against the sky’s dark throat, crying “Here we are!” We are here too. Still standing against the empty night. Watching for the morning star.

*Traditional weather wisdom, even mentioned in the Bible, is related in various forms, but often as “Red sky at night, sailor’s delight; red sky at morning, sailor take warning.” In the Bible, the line appears in Matthew 16:2-3, and the verse says, “When it is evening, ye say, It will be fair weather: for the sky is red.  And in the morning, It will be foul weather to day: for the sky is red and lowring.” (KJV)

**An ill child, Robert Louis Stevenson spent much of his childhood confined to his bed in Edinburgh. Some believe that he may have suffered from tuberculosis. The oft told story says that one night Robert’s nanny couldn’t get him to go to bed. Young Robert stared out the window, oblivious to her requests. Finally, she said, “Robert, what are you looking at out there?” Pulling back the curtain, she could see that he was watching the lamplighter making his way down the street, lighting the street lamps. Young said, “Look at that man! He’s punching holes in the darkness!” –Many versions of this story exist, and it is widely favoured by evangelical Christians who like to use it as a metaphor. The story itself may be apocryphal, but I would enjoy hearing from anyone who has more substantive information about the tale.

***Many artists have recorded this song, with notables including Dame Vera Lynn, the award winning Sweet Adelaide acapella quarted Heat, and Gunhild Carling. All these lovely renditions and more are well worth a listen.

****Brooks, Harold Fletcher. A Midsummer Night’s Dream. London: Arden Shakespeare/Cengage Learning, 2007, p.80.

*****Diogenes (412[?] bce – 323 bce) was a Greek philosopher who, at one point, carried a lamp in the day, claiming to be looking for one honest man. Keen gardeners will note that the picture is not a Hawthorn, but a Winterberry, which is actually a type of holly. I simply didn’t have a Hawthorn image that I could use, but this picture gives you the idea.


Winter solstice close at hand. In the northern hemisphere, it is the long awaited return of the sun, the sign of rebirth and the renewed fertility of the world. Halls festooned with evergreen and holly, the symbols of everlasting life in the face of harsh winter. Mistletoe hung to invite kisses fostering the fecundity hidden beneath the sleeping surface of the winter world.

High desert winter. Author photo.

Still, even as we sense the calendar tipping towards a new regreening, many places remain in winter’s frozen clutches–with “water like a stone”, with people still scrabbling for fuel as “snow lay ’round about, deep and crisp and even”. Some seasonal carols tell us this.

At this moment of deepest darkness, the “longest evening of the year”, midwinter holidays are bright ‘holy days’, filled with light as a ward against midwinter darkness. Chanukah’s menorah is set as a beacon of increasing light against the backdrop of darkness, a reminder of success in the long ago recapture and rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. The Christian celebration of Christmas being a holy day focusing on a birth which is itself the symbol of humanity’s spiritual rebirth. These religious observations stand on the ancient foundation of the pagan Yule and all its incarnations, probably stretching back for almost as long as there have been people living on this tilted axis globe.

In northern climes, the snow can seem like an ocean of white, like water surrounding us, undulating away in all directions. This can become overwhelming, even speaking to us of what we need to hear. In Conrad Aiken’s “Silent Snow, Secret Snow”, a boy’s growing pervasive obsession with snow that only he can see represents his increasing retreat and isolation from the world around him.

And with that effort, everything was solved, everything became all right: the seamless hiss advanced once more, the long white wavering lines rose and fell like enormous whispering sea-waves, the whisper becoming louder, the laughter more intensely maniacal.

“Listen!” it said. “We’ll tell you the last, the most beautiful and secret story-shut your eyes-it is a very small story-a story that gets smaller and smaller-it comes inward instead of opening like a flower-it is a flower becoming a seed-a little cold seed-do you hear” We are leaning closer to you”-

The hiss was now becoming a roar-the whole world was a vast moving screen of snow-but even now it said peace, it said remoteness, it said cold, it said sleep.*

Many critics have described this story as a portrait of deepening schizophrenia. A Jungian analyst might tell us that such visions or dreams represent profound emotional shifts, with the snow, a vision of a kind of water submerging the world.

Amongst the catalogue of Jungian archetypes, water most often represents emotional states which may range from raging seas to deep and quiet pools. Aspects of snow, desert, ocean. The surface of our inner ocean may be variously frozen or heaving, glass or tumult. Inner water speaks to us in ways that only we can hear. It shifts and roils in ways that only we can know.

Warwickshire winter. Author photo.

For water, its reflections and its depths, cannot remain entirely external to us. Its conception and its very presence is reflexive. It flows into and through our natural surroundings, and it also extends back into our being. It represents our connection with flow, with attention, spirit, seasons, and time. “The waters are the source of all potentialities in existence; the source and grave of all things in the universe; the undifferentiate; the unmanifest; the first form of matter”.**

In literature and myth, water is often associated with the power and subtlety of sexual union. While seashells are often said to symbolise female sexuality, the ebb and flow of their watery source also parallels human passions, and the sea is ultimately the birthplace of all life on earth. In its reproductive aspects, water is seductive. In Homer’s Ulysees, on his long journey home from the Trojan War, Ulysees meets the sirens, whose irresistable call lures sailors to their watery doom. Homer’s Ulysees, in order to hear the song, has his crew tie him to a mast while they block their own ears against the call.

O Brother, Where Art Thou? Dir. Joel Coen. Touchstone/Universal/Studio Canal, 2000.

While the sea has its siren song, in dream interpretation water tends to represent our emotions or our deepest passions. Dreaming of rain, of swimming, of a taking a bath, or even of shoveling snow may suggest any number of possibilities, all of which may illustrate our underlying emotional state.

But when I came, alas, to wive,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
By swaggering could I never thrive,
For the rain it raineth every day.

Twelfth Night 5.1.420-3

With all the bluff and counter, all the masking we perform in life, eventually it becomes difficult to swagger one’s way through the rain. Our emotional states, as perhaps the most defining characterisitic of our humanity, tend to catch up with us. We shove emotions aside at our peril. Eventually, they tend to catch up with us, to overwhelm us.

The idea of drowning may take this to its logical conclusion. Drowning in one’s emotions. Being overwhelmed by the water or the secret snow. Water as a grave, as a resting place, is often visually compelling. In Jane Campion’s film, The Piano, the near drowning represents a rebirth, a splitting of the new soul from its old attachments:

The Piano. Dir. Jane Campion. Miramax, 1993.

Here, we are drawn into the depths with Ada McGrath, as the character is literally roped to the emotional baggage of her sinking piano. In the scene, we go through a drowning, a baptism, a cleansing, before we are pulled back up onto the boat. The water signifies the purification of rebirth, like the rededication of a temple, or a birth offering a renewed chance for redemption.

Baptism is a regreening in the spiritual winter, the water washing away old emotional and spiritual weights and attachments, leaving us cleaner, lighter, and more ascendant.

O Brother, Where Art Thou? Dir. Joel Coen. Touchstone/Universal/Studio Canal, 2000.

Water’s aspects converge in drowning. Death in water combines renewal with what is sometimes an awful finality. Gertrude’s description of Ophelia’s death in Hamlet puts the event at some remove from the audience, rendering it like a painting of a forlorn ending replete with imagery of both life and death.

There is a willow grows askant the brook
That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream.
Therewith fantastic garlands did she make
Of crowflowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples,
That liberal shepherds give a grosser name,
But our cold maids do “dead men’s fingers” call
There on the pendant boughs her coronet weeds
Clamb’ring to hang, an envious sliver broke,
When down her weedy trophies and herself
Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide,
And mermaid-like awhile they bore her up,
Which time she chanted snatches of old lauds,
As one incapable of her own distress
Or like a creature native and endued
Unto that element. But long it could not be
Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
Pulled the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death.
LAERTES Alas, then she is drowned.
QUEEN Drowned, drowned.

Hamlet 4.7.190-210
Askant willow. Author photo.

The drowned, drowned, drowned cadence of the language near the end of the scene punctuates the finality. That the drowning happens offstage, distances the event both in place and time from the onstage moment. That Gertrude does not name Ophelia in the description of events further isolates the drowned character, underscoring her loneliness. The description pointedly weaves life with death together. Profuse flower imagery includes a phallic blossom which hints at fertility but is also called “dead men’s fingers”. Ophelia’s clothes “awhile they bore her up”, but moments later, “heavy with their drink,/Pulled the poor wretch from her melodious lay/To muddy death”.

The language and the dramatic framework also suggest a greater matrix in which human life is embedded. Human trophies are merely weeds, and the brook perenially weeps, suggesting the mourning attendant on impermanence. The episode suggests that perhaps our lives are mere extensions, fantastic garlands that cover underlying truths, or reflections of an ever changing sky.

Sky within the stream. Author photo.

These moments in the plays offer potential historical reflections as well. Possible inspirations for Shakespeare’s Ophelia are numerous. Oxford historian, Dr Steven Gunn, found a coroner’s record of the drowning of Jane Shaxpere in a millpond near Stratford upon Avon in 1569.*** Two and a half year old Jane, perhaps a cousin of William’s, was apparently picking marigolds when she fell into the stream. Similarly, a woman intriguingly named Katherine Hamlet reportedly drowned near Tidington, a village near enough to Stratford that it is walkable, while fetching water from the Avon in 1579. And this blog has previously mentioned the local Stratford story about Margaret Clopton, from a Stratford family Shakespeare would have known. Reportedly suffering over a disappointed love affair, Margaret supposedly drowned herself in a watery depression which still may be seen in the Welcombe Hills just north of Stratford town–in a little hollow now known as ‘Margaret’s well’.

The point is not to sort through potential foundations of Shakespeare’s Ophelia. Neither is is it, nor could it, to diminish the sadness of those long ago deaths. Rather, the point is to remind us that winter–our present winter–represent a kind of alpha and omega. The season is a flow, a flux, like water which represents all the directions at once. The death of the old year marks a Phoenix turning point, consumed in water in place of fire. Submergence taking the place of conflagration.

If this moment can have a point, it may be that in endings, in finality, even in past tragedies, we can perceive new direction, a kind of rebirth or regreening of the world. We see this not only in terms of Shakespeare’s works, but also in our present. If it it true that nothing is ever wasted, then death may also be seen as the winter solstice of our collective mythical landscape–the pivotal well in which we drown the books of our past so that our new and unknown future lives may then begin.

After solstice, once the sun has turned its corner in the sky, the cold winter begins to retreat. This may be gradual. Ice slowly becomes water, flows into earth, and that muddy death becomes a bed for new life. Kisses beneath the mistletoe engender new sprouts. New affection, new connection, and even new generations on the earth. One creative vision of the impetus or spark for Shakespeare’s winter play, Twelfth Night, transforms the very idea of drowning, of emotional and spiritual loss. As it does in the play, love’s loss becomes connection, and the death of the old year again signifies the birth of the new.

Shakespeare in Love. Miramax/Universal, 1998.

Few people I know will be sorry to see the year 2020 end. Rife with profound difficulties on all fronts, this year has been, in many ways, a political, environmental, economic, and public health disaster. The year itself has become its own meme about limitation, divisiveness, isolation, loss, and disappointment. In many ways, it has shipwrecked humanity and set us all on the shores of an unknown world.

Yet, in a sense, we are all constantly shipwrecked anew on the shores of Shakespeare’s Illyria. Life is this way–an ebb and flow. We feel that our vanished loved ones are truly gone just as Viola supposes her brother, Sebastian, to have been lost at sea. In a profound way, however, our loved ones are not and cannot be gone from us, because they are woven into the fabric of us, etched into our being.

In the wide world, as water flows on to water and into cloud and rain, our memory shapes us and the world we know in an ongoing rainfall of creation. Kisses stolen beneath winter’s green mistletoe in one sense represent the promise of our future. Let us bestow those sparks of love liberally. Let us always bring love’s needed light, but most especially at those times when our long winter has been so dark.

Here’s wishing everyone an abundance of love, light, and peace in the next year and in all the years to come. With continued patience, kindness, understanding, and care, we really can build a better world for ourselves, and for those who will come after us.

*Aiken, Conrad. “Silent Snow, Secret Snow” in The Collected Short Stories of Conrad Aiken, 1934. His works, including his poetry, are widely reprinted and readily available in print and on the internet.

**Cooper, Jean. An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Traditional Symbols. London: Thames & Hudson, 1978.



Having made these notes the other day, it seemed only fitting that they should be shared here as an extra bit of Shakespearean performance history related to American history and the grim subject of President Lincoln’s assassination. A curious historical twist here offers a small bit of information in addition to what appears in previous blog posts. 

The famous 19th century English actor, Junius Brutus Booth (1796 – 1852), moved to the United States and fathered twelve children. Among them were three Booth brothers, Junius Brutus, Jr., and the well known Edwin, and John Wilkes. Both Edwin and John Wilkes were celebrities with successful acting careers, but Junius Jr., never achieved the same level of success as his brothers. As noted in previous posts, the three brothers only appeared once onstage together, in a benefit performance of Julius Caesar at the Winter Garden Theatre in New York on November 25, 1864. 

John Wilkes (left), Edwin, and Junius Jr.(as Antony, Brutus, and Cassius respectively), image in the public domain.

Staged as a benefit performance, the brothers performed to raise money for a statue of Shakespeare in Central Park which still stands today.

Statue of Shakespeare in Central Park by American sculptor, John Quincy Adams Ward, image in the public domain.

Tragically, the most well remembered Booth brother was infamous. John Wilkes Booth, a Confederate sympathizer, assassinated United States President Abraham Lincoln during a performance of the English playwright, Tom Taylor’s farce, Our American Cousin, at Ford’s Theatre in Washington D.C. on April 14th 1865. Seeing himself as a kind of modern American Brutus, John Wilkes Booth saw parallels between his own actions and that of the Julius Caesar protagonist, assuming what he saw as a noble responsibility to assassinate a would be tyrant. Although brother Edwin may be remembered as the best known American Shakespearean actor of his time, his brother’s infamy still overshadows his accomplishments by far, and the Booth family, if they are remembered at all, are mostly remembered in the context of the assassin to whom they were related.

Yet, true history really is almost always stranger than fiction. A year before John Wilkes shot Abraham Lincoln, in the same year the three Booth brothers’ performed in Julius Caesar together, Edwin Booth actually rescued Lincoln’s son, Robert, from almost certain injury or death: 

The incident occurred while a group of passengers were late at night purchasing their sleeping car places from the conductor who stood on the station platform at the entrance of the car. The platform was about the height of the car floor, and there was of course a narrow space between the platform and the car body. There was some crowding, and I happened to be pressed by it against the car body while waiting my turn. In this situation the train began to move, and by the motion I was twisted off my feet, and had dropped somewhat, with feet downward, into the open space, and was personally helpless, when my coat collar was vigorously seized and I was quickly pulled up and out to a secure footing on the platform. Upon turning to thank my rescuer I saw it was Edwin Booth, whose face was of course well known to me, and I expressed my gratitude to him, and in doing so, called him by name. (From a letter Robert Lincoln wrote to the editor of Century Magazine in 1909.)*

Edwin actually didn’t know whose life he had saved until months later, albeit that wouldn’t have made a difference. His act of heroism was apparently an instinctive reaction to seeing fellow human being in trouble rather than by political concerns. Edwin would have had no way of knowing that Robert Todd Lincoln would be the only one of the Lincolns’ four children to survive to adulthood.**

A Unionist, Edwin had been feuding with his brother for some time before the assassination took place. After the event, Edwin disowned his brother completely, refusing to have John Wilkes’ name spoken in his house. Forced to abandon the stage for many months after his brother assassinated Lincoln in April of 1865, Edwin was only able to make a successful return to the stage after the initial public shock and outrage over his brother’s actions receded. However, in January of 1866, he took up what became his signature role, Hamlet. He played Hamlet for 100 nights, setting a record that was only broken by John Barrymore, who did 101 performances in 1922. 

Twice a widower, Edwin continued to perform successfully until 1891. He died in 1893. A statue of him as Hamlet was erected in Gramercy Park in Manhattan in 1916. Like the statue of Shakespeare in Central Park for which he was partly responsible, Edwin Booth’s statue still stands.

Statue of Edwin Booth as Hamlet by Edmond T. Quinn, image in the public domain.

It seems all the more ironic that, of all of Shakespeare’s plays, it should be Julius Caesar in which the acting careers of the Booth brothers should intersect. Not only did John Wilkes identify with the character Brutus, but it is also in Julius Caesar that the character Mark Antony incites rebellion against Caesar’s assassins (including Brutus) in a speech which contains the remark that “The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones” (3.2.84-5). Although John Wilkes Booth’s assassination of President Abraham Lincoln is still widely remembered, his brother Edwin’s rescue of Lincoln’s son has been almost completely forgotten, remaining only a curious footnote in the pages of history.

For those who are interested, much more complete histories of the Booths exist, of course, including a memoirs about John Wilkes and Edwin by their sister, Asia Booth Clarke. Her memoir about John Wilkes was first published in 1938, and it was reprinted by the University of Mississippi Press in 1996. James Shapiro’s book, Shakespeare in a Divided America contains a chapter detailing the assassination and the Shakespeare related interests of both Abraham Lincoln and his assassin.*** Ewan Fernie’s book, Shakespeare and Freedom touches on the Booths briefly as well, albeit more briefly, and in the context of its broader subject.****

Edwin Booth’s rescue of Abraham Lincoln’s son is described in Goff’s biography of Robert Todd Lincoln.

*Goff, John S. Robert Todd Lincoln: a Man in His Own Right. Oklahoma City: University of Oklahoma Press, 1968, pp.70-1.

**Robert Todd Lincoln graduated from Harvard and served as a captain in the Union army under Ulysees S. Grant before going on to become a successful lawyer. He served as the United States Secretary of War from 1881 to 1885, and as the United States Ambassador to the United Kingdom from 1889 to 1893.

***Shapiro, James. Shakespeare in a Divided America. London: Faber & Faber, 2020.

****Fernie, Ewan. Shakespeare for Freedom: Why the Plays Matter. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017.

heart of monster

Can’t keep the damned things off the roof this time of year. Author photo.

In The Winter’s Tale, the rogue Autolycus speaks hypothetically of the King of Bohemia’s anger with a shepherd who fathered the shepherdess with whom Florizel (the prince of Bohemia) has fallen in love. Having discovered that his son loves a mere shepherdess, Autolycus notes:

AUTOLYCUS If that shepherd be not in handfast, let him
fly. The curses he shall have, the tortures he shall
feel, will break the back of man, the heart of

The Winter’s Tale 4.4.898-901

Autolycus’s line suggests that the character believes a monster’s heart to be a strong thing, something only the strongest tortures might break. This suggests that monsters are sturdy, perhaps the point of approaching invulnerabilty. Only chance flaws can overcome them. For example, the invading Martians in War of the Worlds whom all of the human world cannot defeat, are only eventually overthrown by an accident of biology, by their susceptibility to a microbe to which humans remain immune. There are many similar stories–triffids, zombies, plagues waiting to run riot over humanity and perhaps sweep us from existence.

Yet, it also seems that when we examine certain monsters, there is a human resonance. They often don’t seem quite so tough after all. In fact, they may be just the opposite. Perhaps some monsters end up being or becoming monsters because their vulnerabilties are that much more profound than those around them.

How they look me. Their eyes look me bad or dirty. Rains smearing. Ashes my hair my eyes my inside. Me eyes grey them back. Still wanting. Them.

Not need. Find my own honey wood not them. Track humblebees, sweet waters, berries. Not them. Tender bark for cord. Seed pod inside bed. Not them. Where grasstreesky make things. Wave wind music. Hummmm bees. Hummmm not bees. Leaves air. Big heaving land. Trees big dancing cloud blue.

Look me skin. Hateful, they speak. Find sharp nose speak. Hurt. Wet wood bunched bunched time. Sharp nose smell.

Small world big big. Big ache. How hurt look. Me look. Rasp din rakkatta elbmrt tem. Vartga allaga nsshhkt.

Me inside.

To them the storms are storms and not the distant parents of sweet airs. They cannot see together in the world. Only parts not whole. Lights out under the moon. Only lights. Not the other moons. Bronze and lavandula. They only have the one.

Lights beneath the moon. Author photo.

With monsters, their hearts seem to begin with hurt, and we are told that pain is the great parent of monsters. The idea of the so-called “poisonous pedagogies” maintains in part that one makes a proverbial junkyard dog by beating the puppy. Raising the animal with habitual mistreatment or neglect tends to render them fierce and wild, as the creature seeks to develop a kind of perpetual defense against its own defenselessness. In this way, mistreatment may amplify viciousness in children too. Cruelty remains its own parent, with cruel fostering cruel, turtles all the way down. Sea of stars rippling like a gelid lake only when one dips in a paddle breaking the surface.

Related to hurt, fear also lies at the core of the very idea of ‘monster’ because monsters represent an absence. Absence of love, of light, of belief. Needs unfulfilled. That empty scary closet somewhere down the back corridor of our lives.

We are afraid of monsters not only because of their alien nature, but also because of their similarity and resonance with ourselves. In monsters’ awful forms and behaviours, we often perceive terrible echoes with our own existence, and uncomfortable parallels with our own lives. Our culture is full of stories about horrible secrets, often hidden just beneath the surface of that nice family down the street, or even our own friends and family members.

We make light of monsters often enough, but this only underscores their presence among us. In field, in stream, in a cave, beneath a bridge where billy goats roam. Even in the White House, crouching in denial, spewing venom.

Michael Jackson, Thriller, Westlake Studios, 1984.

Naturally a monster embodies a kind of fear which prompts it to lash out at those around it, but a monster also represents those collective fears which our human society projects onto real or imagined beings or situations beyond ourselves. Of the many terrifying examples of projected fears, perhaps few are as frightening as Winnie the Pooh’s nightmare from the Walt Disney short film, Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day:

From Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day, Buena Vista Studios, 1968.

From this perceived difference, from the foundations of otherness, outsidedness, of alienation, arises virtually the entire host, the whole legion of monsters which run so rampant through the darker fields of human existence. Pain and fear fester into rage, which may also give rise to depression which adds to the hurt. The cycle itself turns vicious. Psychology tells us (perhaps Alice Miller?) that depression comes from rage turned inwards–and that rage turns inwards when there is nowhere else to turn. When the landscape empties out and desertification dominates the world, that emptiness may prompt all the various stages of wounded rage.

In his works, Shakespeare characterises many examples.

In the words of Caliban from The Tempest:

CALIBAN: I must eat my dinner.
This island’s mine by Sycorax, my mother,
Which thou tak’st from me. When thou cam’st first,
Thou strok’st me and made much of me, wouldst
give me
Water with berries in ’t, and teach me how
To name the bigger light and how the less,
That burn by day and night. And then I loved thee,
And showed thee all the qualities o’ th’ isle,
The fresh springs, brine pits, barren place and
Cursed be I that did so! All the charms
Of Sycorax, toads, beetles, bats, light on you,
For I am all the subjects that you have,
Which first was mine own king; and here you sty me
In this hard rock, whiles you do keep from me
The rest o’ th’ island.

The Tempest 1.2.395-411

As is typical in Shakespeare, the story is more complicated than Caliban admits. He is no wronged innocent. His attempt to copulate with Prospero’s daughter condemns him and he knows it. To Prospero and his daughter Miranda, he is a rapist. Yet, Caliban does not speak of the event not in terms of lust or domination. Instead, he uses the language of animal understanding, of breeding and peopling:

PROSPERO: Thou most lying slave,
Whom stripes may move, not kindness, I have used
Filth as thou art, with humane care, and lodged
In mine own cell, till thou didst seek to violate
The honor of my child.

O ho, O ho! Would ’t had been done!
Thou didst prevent me. I had peopled else
This isle with Calibans.

The Tempest 1.2.413-21

Although he seems to realise that he has done wrong, Caliban’s perspective appears to derive more from his kinship with the wild things than it does from the mind of a typical human rapist. Where Prospero speaks of his daughter’s “honor”, he seems to use a language foreign to Caliban’s understanding. Caliban’s perspective seems stepped somewhere outside of Prospero’s human realm of courts and scholarship, of social order and even basic human respect. These are things Caliban’s greater and lesser lights do not know, coming as he does from a kind of sub human or beast consciousness. He sees only the advantages of potential reproduction, of peopling the island to which he is so deeply linked and of which he is an integral part.

When we look at Caliban’s language throughout the play, his vocabulary as well as his cadences, his speech is replete with natural resonance. His thoughts are occupied with nature and natural processes. His borderline morality seems almost natural in him as he not only does not belong in the human world, but also lacks the kind of nurturance and human understanding to function successfully within it. The order of Prospero’s world, and that he has temporarily imposed upon the wild island, is patterned after a higher moral law in which is alien to Caliban, and in which he is unable to participate. His laws are comprised of the natural governance of pain and pleasure, benefit and avoidance, and his observance is peppered with the astonishing jewel like beauties natural existence. In Caliban’s case, his ‘monster’ heart may be much simpler and much more vulnerable than Autolycus’ opening line might imply.

Yet, Shakespeare presents many other monsters too, and much more human seeming ones. Iago in Othello bears a sense of internal woundedness that drives his seething resentment to extreme forms of psychological violence. Adept at poisoning the mind, Iago speaks poison into his master’s mind, raising and feeding the spectre of jealousy in Othello until it consumes him along with all the innocents around him.

Bob Hoskins’ Iago laughs frequently, but more with malice and emptiness than with mirth. His universal hatred has become such a part of him that it seems to bubble up from his depths unbidden:

Othello by BBC Shakespeare, 1981.

In contrast, Michaél Mac Liammóir’s Iago is more detached, calmly watching Othello’s passions begin to tear him apart while continuing to pretend honest cousel:

Othello, Marceau Films/United Artists, 1951.

Same monster, different takes.

George Lucas once spoke about Darth Vader as “a pathetic guy who’s had a very sad life”.* There can be a great sadness about monsters, especially when we begin to see how isolated they are, and how in many cases they may remain cut off forever from anything that might have brought them love or happiness. John Gardner’s novel, Grendel, narrated by the monster from Beowulf offers a similar kind of perspective–a monster at once thoughtful and horrifying.**

In the end, monsters come from us. Our griefs, sorrows, lonelinesses, and rages give them life. Our orphaned emotions feed and nurture them. Our inward gaze seats and houses them. Sometimes they are in our towns, and sometimes in wild places. Sometimes they hunker down in shadow, or in the highest seats of government, confront us in a terrible light. It remains important to remember that when we walk down the street (in the days when we hope to be able to do so more safely again), we can look to those around us for the monsters. And if we cannot find the monster among them, then it may be that the monster is actually us.

*Edwards, Gavin. “George Lucas and the Cult of Darth Vader.” Rolling Stone, June 2, 2005.

**Gardner, John. Grendel. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1975.

A game at chess

“Miranda playing chess with Ferdinand” by Gillot Saint-Evre, 1822. In the collection of the Musée de la Vie Romantique in Paris.

Near the end of The Tempest, Prospero “discovers Ferdinand and Miranda playing at chess” in a moment that says much about romantic partnerships. In the presence of his spirit servant, Ariel, Prospero speaks to the party of noblemen (including his brother and the King of Naples, who years ago conspired against Prospero in order to usurp his dukedom) whom he has shipwrecked on his island:

Pray you, look in.
My dukedom since you have given me again,
I will requite you with as good a thing,
At least bring forth a wonder to content you
As much as me my dukedom.
(Here Prospero discovers Ferdinand and Miranda,
playing at chess.

MIRANDA (to Ferdinand)
Sweet lord, you play me false.

FERDINAND No, my dearest love,
I would not for the world.

Yes, for a score of kingdoms you should wrangle,
And I would call it fair play.

The Tempest 5.1.195-204.

The stage direction marks the only use I recall of the word ‘chess’ in Shakespeare’s plays in spite of the fact that his works do refers to other games, like tennis, nine men’s morris, and the sport of wrestling. In The Tempest, the chess game moment has a sense of tactful sparring and diplomacy which underscores the young couple’s amorous negotiations. Dramatically, chess serves as a larger metaphor here, where the dialogue reveals an amiable sparring which reflects Miranda and Ferdinand’s growing mutual affection and familiarity.

The word ‘discovers’ not only describes Prospero revealing his daughter and Fernando as a couple, but also suggests that his revelation at that moment may have a tactical intent. In chess terminology a ‘discovery’ describes a moment when moving one piece reveals an attack which was previously concealed–such as moving a bishop aside to open a column for an attacking rook, for example. In The Tempest, Prospero discovers his intention to reinstate and reinforce harmonious relations between his house and that of the King of Naples. His discovery reveals that his goal of peace and reunification is not only well underway but may be a fait accompli.

This raises questions about how well Shakespeare might have actually known the game of chess. From what information we have, we cannot know for certain, although he obviously was aware of the game and may well have played. Probably originating sometime in or even before the 6th century, chess was an old game even in Shakespeare’s day, and it may well have been as popular then as it is today.

Although Shakespeare only lived from 1564 to 1616, the early modern age in which he lived, as well as the late middle age, may have contributed as much to the development of modern chess as it did to literature and drama. Ideas were ‘in the air’ and in any number of ways Shakespeare may have become conversant with at least some of the prevalent chess writing and thought of his time. William Caxton’s The Game and Playe of the Chesse, which paralleled social hierarchies with those of chess pieces, had been published in 1474. Repetición de Amores y Arte de Ajedrez (Repetition of Love and the Art of Playing Chess) by Luis Ramirez de Lucina had been published in 1497, and Ruy Lopez, the Spanish priest who developed the famous and popular chess opening (starting by moving the white king’s pawn to e4, which is still referred to as the ‘Ruy Lopez opening’) published his Libro de la invencion liberal y arte del juego del axedrez (Book of the liberal invention and art of the game of chess) in 1561. Meanwhile, Alessandro Salvio (1570-1640?) rose to fame as a widely acknowledged chess master by around 1600, and although the title had yet to be established, he is generally thought to have been the first world chess champion.

A well known painting depicts two figures who seem to be Ben Jonson and William Shakespeare engaged in a chess match. Thought to have been painted around 1600, and most often attributed to Karel van Mander, it remains difficult to determine reliably if the men in the picture are really the playwrights they are thought to be. Because the work was painted during Shakespeare and Jonson’s lifetimes, the most confident speculators assert that the painting may have been painted from life, and images from his own lifetime that purport to actually represent Shakespeare are rare.

“Les joueurs d’échecs”, attributed to Karel van Mander ca. 1600. Public domain image of a painting in the private collection of the Heyman family, widely thought to be a painting of Ben Jonson playing chess with William Shakespeare. Dimitry Gottfried’s detailed analysis of the board’s likely game position may be seen in the notes below.*

Intriguing, albeit not conclusive.

Although to some chess may seem dull and decidedly less than ‘sexy’, the game has long been used as a metaphor not only for political relations but also for sexual politics. Although the object of a game of chess is to checkmate the king (to entrap the piece in such a way that it will inevitably be taken on the next move), the most powerful piece on the board is the queen, who can move any number of squares in any direction. Historical evidence suggests that the chess queen replaced a weaker piece which may have initially been a grand vizier or advisor. Notably, the piece’s expanded powers appear to have emerged at around the same time that a female gender identity became specific, adding a distinctly sexual aspect to the game’s power dynamics.**

A well known contemporary musical dramatization of a chess match emphasizes both the underlying political and the sexual parallels suggested by the game. Loosely based on the 1972 Bobby Fischer/Boris Spassky cold war chess tournament in Iceland, Tim Rice’s musical Chess features an unbalanced American chess prodigy pitted against a confident Russian chess champion.

“One night in Bangcock” from Chess. Music by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, Lyrics by Tim Rice and Bjorn Ulvaeus. Book by Tim Rice.

Fischer himself was a troubled individual, who led a challenged life, but he became a kind of hero figure for defeating Spassky, especially to youngsters in the U.S. as almost an entire generation became fascinated with the game of chess. Historically, although Fischer had won the 1972 match, he subsequently refused to agree to the conditions to defend his world chess title against Anatoly Karpov. He became something of a recluse, living in various places around the globe. He briefly emerged from retirement in 1992 to play Spassky, and win, again, before returning to his reclusive nomadic existence. Eventually, on the lam from the United States, he gained citizenship in Iceland, where he died of kidney failure at the age of 64 in 2008. His books, especially My 60 Memorable Games, still rank near the top of many ‘great chess book’ lists.

Aside from Shakespeare, other early modern dramatists also used chess as a device. In Thomas Middleton’s tragedy, Women Beware Women (possibly written sometime between 1612 and 1627, and first published in 1657), a game of chess serves to distract a mother from the seduction of her daughter in law taking place in a room overhead.*** Taylor and Loughrey look at the dialogue in the scene, comparing it with chess tactics. The use of the word ‘blind’ in the context has a double meaning as the game itself serves as a kind of magician’s scarf in the play. Leantio has charged his mother with guarding his wife from potential seducers. Yet, the Duke of Florence seduces Bianca while Leantio’s mother plays chess with the widow, Livia, who contrives the game for just that purpose.

In the comedy, The Spanish Curate, by John Fletcher and Philip Massinger (onstage in 1622, and published in 1647), the chess game has an even more specific sexual resonance. Leandro is a young man enamored with the lawyer Bartolus’ beautiful wife, Amaranta. Having worked his way into the lawyer’s household as a student, Leandro watches Amaranta play a game of chess with her husband. As he watches the game, Leandro’s attraction is evident in his aside, “You are a blessed man that may so have her. Oh that I might play with her–” (The Spanish Curate 3.4).****

Within moments, Leandro gets his chance as Bartolus is called away from the game to resolve a neighbor’s dispute. In his absence, Amaranta asks the young apprentice if he can help her escape her husband’s impending mate. Saying that he would gladly tell her anything within his power, Leandro declares his love, and she smacks him in response–upsetting the chessboard at the same time. At that moment, Bartolus returns, and the dejected Leandro feels certain that his advances will be discovered. Instead, when Bartolus asks his wife why the chessboard was suddenly overturned, she responds:

Only a chance, your pupil said he plaid well, And so indeed he do’s: he undertook for ye, Because I would not sit so long time idle, I made my liberty, avoided your mate And he again as cunningly endangered me, Indeed he put me strangely to it. When presently Hearing you come, & having broke his ambush too, Having the second time brought off my Queen fair, I rose o’th sudden smilingly to shew ye, My apron caught the Chesse-board, and the men, And there the noise was.

The Spanish Curate 3.4*****

Her response displays something deeper than mere social tact. Although she rejects Leandro’s initial advance, Amaranta plays a chess tactic of her own in not disclosing the young man’s indiscretion to her husband. She deliberately leaves open the possibility of future amorous negotiations with Leandro.

The most extensive chess allegory in early modern drama is Thomas Middleton’s A Game at Chess which was first staged in August of 1624. Satirizing failed marriage negotiations between Prince Charles of England and the Spanish Infanta, Maria Anna, the entire play presents the contemporary political events as a chess match. Identified as various black or white pieces on a chessboard, the characters vie for power and dominance in a dramatic atmosphere rife with political and sexual intrigue and corruption. The white pieces representing England mostly appear in a positive light, and are ranged against the Spanish black pieces. A tremendous box office success, performances were shut down after only nine days after the Spanish ambassador complained. Because this was the last recorded play of Middleton’s before his death in 1627, some historians believe that the satire may have ended the playwright’s career.

Although classed as a “comedy”, A Game at Chess retains intriguing grim elements which tend to characterize much of Middleton’s work. The bags in which the chess pieces are stored, for example, become the mouth of hell. Near the end of the play, the White King says:

Obscurity is now the fittest favour Falsehood can sue for; it well suits perdition. ‘Tis their best course that so have lost their fame To put their heads into the bag for shame.

[The bag opens, the Black side in it.]

And there behold: the bag, like hell-mouth opens To take her due, and the lost sons appear Greedily gaping for increase of fellowship In infamy, the last desire of wretches, Advancing their perdition-branded foreheads Like Envy’s issues, or a bed of snakes

A Game at Chess 5.3.175-84.******

Dark imagery indeed for a comedy–smacking of the finality of eternal damnation, and strangely apropos in a dramatic depiction of a game whose annals contain examples of both genius and madness, and sometimes both at once. The play A Game At Chess retains an hallucinogenic quality in a way which suggests a prefiguring of Lewis Carroll and Jefferson Airplane.

Chess games may come to a draw, but should there be an actual victory, the corresponding defeat is decisive and final. Yet, chess, like life, is also a game of tomorrows. There is always another game to be played, and there are always new champions rising through the ranks, or newly discovered prodigies dawning on the scene.

Political contests are like this too, of course, especially elections, and the most recent contest for the United States presidency is no exception. The apparent winner of this election, like Prospero in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, proposes reunification and harmony in the wake of violent opposition and acrimony. Naturally, people should hope that such harmony might be possible, and that madness and resentment will not carry the day. We should hope that the coming days will be marked by grace, acceptance, and forbearance–that those who were unsuccessful might refrain from violence, and that those who carried the day might mercifully refrain from crass gloating or cruel insult. Yet, politics is so often rife with both brilliance and madness that we must serve as an example, conducting ourselves as we would wish others to do as we wait and see what comes of any glimmer of hope and any promise of a coming dawn.

In the meantime, both in general and during this lull in a bitter and ongoing struggle in the United States, it seems important to reiterate an encouragement for kindness and compassion. In The Tempest, Prospero’s brother Antonio had conspired with Alonso (the King of Naples), not only to usurp Prospero’s dukedom, but also to kill Prospero and his infant daughter. In spite of this, twelve years later when Prospero finds his brother and Alonso in his power, he not only spares those who had been his mortal enemies, but he forgives them, weaving a policy of reunion and reconciliation. Exemplary. If only all of us could be so patient, and perhaps many of us can be.

Although it may not always be easy to understand others, we can understand their common humanity. We can be certain that their own struggles must be as terrible for them to bear as ours can be for us. If anger is born of hurt or fear, it may be good to remember that the angriest people may have been hurt the worst, or must be the most afraid. That raging player across the board, or the one at the neighboring table who upsets the gameboard in frustration, may be justifiably afraid of some darkness beyond the chess board.

Even if that darkness is something which only they can see, it bears our consideration. In the wake of this latest election, even as the chess piece seem to settle, it behooves us to go gently into the coming days, even as we walk amongst those with whom we do not always agree, and whom it may be truly challenging for us to try to understand.

As for Shakespeare, early modern writers, and chess, and other games, there simply is not enough space here to address this considerable subject beyond a cursory glance. As a metaphor, the stratagems inherent in a game of chess parallel those in human life–reflecting the constant negotiation for power and position, and the sacrifice and experimentation that characterize much of human dynamics. In light of the early modern innovations which describe and portray the multiverse of human experience, it seems hardly surprising that gaming structures, and ideas associated with them, should reverberate throughout the period’s literature and drama. For now, the ghost is keeping more detailed explanations and examinations of this material for another book.

Meanwhile, for those with a keener interest in the mechanics of chess itself, you may enjoy the short film on a famous game played at the Paris Opera in 1858 by American chess master, Paul Morphy, against two strong amateurs, Karl II, the Duke of Brunswick, and Comte Isouard de Vauvenargues. Played when Morphy was only 21 years old, the short and elegant opera game is considered a virtuoso illustration of tactical execution in the use of sacrifice. The game is still used for chess instruction today.*******

The ghost wishes you all safety and happiness until next time.

*Gottfrid, Dmitry. “Chess in the Arts.”, November 22, 2018. Gottfrid offers a number of interesting analyses of chess positions in a range of paintings. Assuming the position in the chess players painting to be roughly as follows with black to move: writer Dimitry Gottfrid analyizes the position thus: “Shakespeare holds Black’s bishop in his right hand (wh[ich] was probably was on b4) and is preparing to capture White’s queen on c3 (thereby declaring the checkmate).

**For more information on the chess queen, see: Yalom, Marilyn. The Birth of the Chess Queen: How Her Majesty Transformed the Game. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2004.

***A more in depth analysis of Middleton’s use of chess terms in this scene, including additional links for study, may be found in Taylor and Loughrey’s article: Taylor, Neil, and Bryan Loughrey. “Middleton’s Chess Strategies in Women Beware Women.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 24, no. 2 (1984): 341-54.

****Fletcher, John, Francis Beaumont, Alfred Rayney Waller, and Arnold Glover. The Spanish Curate. Vol. II. The Works of Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher. Cambridge: The University press, 1906, p. 106.

*****Ibid, p. 109.

******Middleton, Thomas. A Game at Chess. Edited by T. H. Howard-Hill. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2009.

*******This short film of The Opera Game offers a dramatic overview of the game itself, which was only some 17 moves long. Interspersed moments from different films also give an idea of just how influential chess has been in film. Notably, the last clip is taken from the 1925 Russian silent film, Shakhmatnaya goryachka (Chess Fever), a comedy in which the real life grandmaster, José Raúl Capablanca, who was at the time, the World Chess Champion plays the part of the grandmaster. In Chess Fever, Capablanca’s character tells the young lady that, ‘in the presence of a beautiful woman, he comes to hate chess as well’.

A solid explication of opera game specifics may be seen in Sam Copeland’s blog on here:

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