that old white-bearded Satan

[***Trigger warning*** This post contains violence and rough language–in some ways similar to the weather in a changing climate.]

Shakespeare and aging?


Yep. How well we know it.

As we know him, the old one. Old scratch. The ancient adversary. Everything about him familiar, and all old. Old as the salt we throw over our shoulders to keep him behind us. Old as the hills, with eyes or without, whether with Steinbeck’s dark inhabitants or seemingly empty. Old as kisses. Old as angels. Devils. Demons. All the same. Old.

The old earth. Author photo.

Old as the earth and older. Older than the sun. As old as night and the cries of owls, their howlet’s wings destined for hell broth. We know it. The bell rings and it rings for thee. It invites us whether or not the sure and firm set earth hear our steps, whether Brutus so unkindly knocked or no. Maybe leaving us alone. Maybe not.

Red sun at the end of the old day. Author photo.

Age brings its own alone. For solitude is the curse and blessing which comes with age. It draws up a chair at the table, near enough to the fire on the long winter night. Grandfather lives too long and all his old cronies go before him into that good night. The cold season of old age knows only wind and brandy for companionship, as Frost would tell us. Philip Hoare writes of winter:

Winter is a lonely season. That’s why I like it. It’s easier to be alone; there’s no one there to notice. In the silence that ascends and descends at either end of the abbreviated day, there’s room to feel alive. The absence makes space for something else. I must keep faith with the sea. Swimming before dawn, I must leave my bike light on so that I can see where I left my clothes. Once the waves washed them clean away, leaving me to wade after them.

The sea doesn’t care, it can take or give. Ports are places of grief. Sailors declined to learn to swim, since to be lost overboard – even within sight of the shore – and to fight the waves would only ever extend the agony. You can only ever be alone out there.*

Yet, so often alone is not exactly alone, because that’s when thoughts come. Old thoughts. Old deeds. Old words spoken too hotly, things done too rashly. Our past swims up out of the sea and comes in through the open portal to sleep another night in the upper berth.

Satan. The old enemy. Old. Not the old joke — anagram of ‘Santa’, although both are old enough to be timeless and both might have white beards. Well, Santa has a white beard. At least we’re pretty certain that he does. He goes everywhere, not that we usually see him directly.

Yet, like that other one, the more adversarial one, the bb pellets that run all over when we load the air rifle, his influence may be readily apparent. Is Milton telling us that being bad is more fun than being good?

Animal House, Universal Pictures, 1978, with Donald Sutherland.

Parents assembling this or that unto the almost dawn of seasonal mornings. Needing batteries. Missing this or that and all the winter season will be damned. Is this not damnation?

Perhaps there is something to the Santa Satan after all. Santa down the chimney. Fire and ashes. Smoke. Personage emerging from the flames. Of the flames. Lake of fire. Long dead fires. Ashes in the hearth.

The age getting into our bones. Snake Plissken? Thought he was dead. Rooster Cogburn? Too old. Too fat. Like Santa.

Yet sometimes the old fat man can still be a kind of hero. Or perhaps the anti-hero.

The same scene from the film and its remake. The same standoff scene two ways, or one way–one imitating the other. The first scene, directed by Henry Hathaway with John Wayne starring as bounty hunter Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn, Robert Duvall as “Lucky” Ned Pepper, Kim Darby as Mattie Ross, and Glen Campbell as La Boeuf:

True Grit, Paramount Pictures, 1969.

And the same scene, in the Paramount remake of True Grit, as directed by the Cohen brothers in 2010, with Jeff Bridges in the role of the aging Cogburn, Barry Pepper as Ned Pepper, Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross, and Matt Damon as La Boeuf:

True Grit, Paramount Pictures, 2010.

Even the more recent remake of this film is getting old now. But then these characters and situations are old. Archetypes. Old scratch with a six gun.

We know these scenes. Even those we haven’t seen are familiar, because the western strips the basic violence inherent in so much of human mythology down to the bare walls. Good versus evil. We fight against the villains, even when they are ourselves. And the evil is an old evil, a lurking evil–known to us and long in our company. Westerns represent pure myth in the vernacular of the American frontier–itself an often hypermasculine, mythic landscape promiscuous with violence itself.

When it comes to approaching the end of life, sometimes the anti-hero is only good at hastening the end. The aging avenger, the angel of death who has grown old and tired because death is the only gift that they can finally bring to anyone–laying waste to evil even when it poses as good. And sometimes the anti-hero isn’t much of a hero at all, no matter how good the character might be at what he does.

Unforgiven, Warner Bros., 1992, Directed by Clint Eastwood.**

Age changes some things, and leaves others as they are. Human nature? Tennyson’s Nature remains on the page, red in tooth and claw. Age may make us hungry, desperate, tired. Desperadoes don’t really ride fences but if their innate violence turns inward, it tends to fester, increasing in intensity.

Aren’t you getting a bit far afield? Leading us off the straight and narrow as the old one might do? Leading us into a dark field filled with Error’s haphazard stones? Where’s the Shakespeare?

Really? After all this time? If you speak of the devil, he will appear. Don’t you know by now? Shakespeare will certainly be here soon, or at least his devils will arrive.

Prince Hal, in a bit of playacting in an Eastcheap tavern, acts as his father (King Henry IV) for a moment versus Falstaff’s own version of the prince:

PRINCE: (as King) The complaints I hear of thee are
FALSTAFF: (as Prince) ’Sblood, my lord, they are false.
—Nay, I’ll tickle you for a young prince, i’ faith.
PRINCE: (as King) Swearest thou? Ungracious boy,
henceforth ne’er look on me. Thou art violently
carried away from grace. There is a devil haunts
thee in the likeness of an old fat man. A tun of man
is thy companion. Why dost thou converse with that
trunk of humors, that bolting-hutch of beastliness,
that swollen parcel of dropsies, that huge bombard
of sack, that stuffed cloakbag of guts, that roasted
Manningtree ox with the pudding in his belly, that
reverend Vice, that gray iniquity, that father ruffian,
that vanity in years? Wherein is he good, but to taste
sack and drink it? Wherein neat and cleanly but to
carve a capon and eat it? Wherein cunning but in
craft? Wherein crafty but in villainy? Wherein villainous
but in all things? Wherein worthy but in nothing?
FALSTAFF: (as Prince) I would your Grace would take
me with you. Whom means your Grace?
PRINCE: (as King) That villainous abominable misleader
of youth, Falstaff, that old white-bearded Satan.
FALSTAFF: (as Prince) My lord, the man I know.
PRINCE: (as King) I know thou dost.
FALSTAFF: (as Prince) But to say I know more harm in
him than in myself were to say more than I know.
That he is old, the more the pity; his white hairs do
witness it. But that he is, saving your reverence, a
whoremaster, that I utterly deny. If sack and sugar
be a fault, God help the wicked. If to be old and
merry be a sin, then many an old host that I know is
damned. If to be fat be to be hated, then Pharaoh’s
lean kine are to be loved. No, my good lord,
banish Peto, banish Bardolph, banish Poins, but for
sweet Jack Falstaff, kind Jack Falstaff, true Jack
Falstaff, valiant Jack Falstaff, and therefore more
valiant being as he is old Jack Falstaff, banish not
him thy Harry’s company, banish not him thy
Harry’s company. Banish plump Jack, and banish all the world.
PRINCE: I do, I will.

1 Henry IV, 2.4.457-97.

As we noted, speak of the devil and he appears–in this case in the likeness of an old fat man. Hal’s description of Falstaff contrasts Falstaff’s own self description:

A goodly portly man, i’ faith, and a
corpulent; of a cheerful look, a pleasing eye, and a
most noble carriage, and, as I think, his age some
fifty, or, by ’r Lady, inclining to threescore; and now
I remember me, his name is Falstaff. If that man
should be lewdly given, he deceiveth me, for, Harry,
I see virtue in his looks. If then the tree may be
known by the fruit, as the fruit by the tree, then
peremptorily I speak it: there is virtue in that
Falstaff; him keep with, the rest banish.

1 Henry IV, 2.4.435-44.

Falstaff’s portrait of himself as Hal’s virtuous companion sidesteps his age by euphemizing it. He glosses. Falstaff describes himself as only “some fifty” or “inclining to threescore”, whereas Hal minces no words with the “old fat man”. Falstaff’s Falstaff ‘inclines’ while Hal’s ‘haunts’.

Hal’s Falstaff is a “trunk of humors”, a “bolting-hutch of beastliness”, a “swollen parcel of dropsies”, all of him an abominable misleader of youth. Falstaff’s Falstaff remains a virtuous “tree”, to be pitied for his age. Instead of a drunken whoremaster, he is “merry”–a “goodly portly man”, “corpulent”, “of a cheerful look, a pleasing eye, and a most noble carriage”.

Yet, however he wrangles the verbage, Falstaff remains old, and we tend to associate age with evil. This association isn’t merely a matter of decay or decrepitude. It isn’t merely that age may become a process of dissolution, of falling away. It is not about losing friends, possessions, and even memories. It isn’t only the “second childishness and mere oblivion” cited by Jaques in his famous “seven ages of man” speech in As You Like it. It isn’t merely that we find age threatening or unpleasant.

It is more than that. Age walks hand in hand with evil. Age is not only undesirable for its deleterious effects on the human mind and body, but it is also often seen as an undesirable characteristic in a moral sense. The wise elder may be an archetype, but the devil, in his ‘old scratch’ form seems even more well established. Nearly as old as God, and older than the earth. The adversary is older than any wise elder excepting the Almighty itself. ‘Old’ may not be an exact equivalent of ‘evil’, but the two ideas never drift far apart from each other.

Setting aside the countless motion picture or television promotional trailers that begin with a deep voice intoning some kind of ‘ancient evil’, we can see the idea of age and evil bundled together in countless places. Early modern drama is replete with it.

There are exceptions too. When Henry V walks through the camp in disguise on the night before the battle with the French, he is challenged at one point.

WILLIAMS: We see yonder the beginning of the day, but
I think we shall never see the end of it.—Who goes
KING HENRY: A friend.
WILLIAMS: Under what captain serve you?
KING HENRY: Under Sir Thomas Erpingham.
WILLIAMS: A good old commander and a most kind
gentleman. I pray you, what thinks he of our
KING HENRY: Even as men wracked upon a sand, that
look to be washed off the next tide.

Henry V 4.1.92-102.

And there is the friendly old. Sir Thomas Erpingham is described as “A good old commander and a most kind gentleman.” The description is made in passing of an absent character, and it is not germane to the main discussion about the vagaries of war or the king’s mortal understanding.

Still, ‘old’ more frequently has negative connotations. At the least, advancing age suggests death’s inexorable approach, as Shakespeare’s sonnet 73 describes it:

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou seest the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire
Consumed with that which it was nourish’d by.
This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

Even in titles, ‘old’ seldom suggests good. The idea of age is less likely to be associated with nobility than it is with dissolution and vice.

Thomas Middleton’s A Trick to Catch the Old One*** is a case in point. A young lover, Theodorus Witgood, has mortgaged his estate to his uncle, Pecunious Lucre. Witgood is in love with Joyce, whose own uncle, Walkadine Hoard, is equally old and unscrupulous. Can Witgood rescue his fortune and future happiness from his avaricious uncle? Therein lies the ‘trick’ of the title. Notably, the play’s title is not “A Trick to Catch Old Uncle”. Middleton’s title implies catching the ‘old one’, which is yet another name for the devil.

Like the devil, the old one in the play must be tricked in order for young love to take its free course. Not enough in itself, virtue must outwit aged vice. Virtuous youth is pitted against the adversary, against age, against the settled quality of inevitable decay.

Middleton’s play inspired Philip Massinger’s later play A New Way to Pay Old Debts.**** In Massinger’s play, the central character is the villain Sir Giles Over-reach, who is pitted against Frank Wellborn and Tom Allworth. Again, we see the pattern of youthful fortune and romance being threatened by villainy personified in a single character. Yet here, the villain need not necessarily be so very old. Instead, it is the debts themselves which are ‘old’. They are a manifestation of an ancient lack, an emptiness, a deficit hanging over the younger characters and impeding their fortunes.

Shakespeare’s resolution of the tug of war that Falstaff plays against Hal goes far beyond a mere play of words, for in the end, the opposition of age and vice against youthful nobility remains deadly serious in ways that it influences king and country. A 1989 film version of Henry V, adapted and directed by Kenneth Branagh, weaves in some of the above dialogue from Henry IV part 1 as a flashback to make the point:

Henry V by BBC films, 1989.*****

At the end of this moment, Pistol and Nym are reconciled and these men, who are obviously growing older, head off to war in France. It is an ominous moment, in a sense. The old glue which once held their company together has dissolved. Falstaff has gone to his grave broken hearted at Hal’s rejection, and all that seems to be left are a ragged group of aging men. One can hardly help thinking that old men often do not often fare so well in war.

It is often noted that when Hal becomes King Henry V, he must transcend his boyhood in the alehouses. He has made his study of the fringes of society over which he will rule, and he must abandon the social scaffolding which helped him deepen his understanding of people like Quickly, Bardolph, Pistol, and Nym. Like a prospective employer, a university for example, in order to maintain his seat of power, a king must surround himself with younger, cleverer, and more agile blood. His counselors and teachers must be more recently schooled, and it is best if their understanding of modern trend is innate.

Old men (and old women too) age away from the world. They know less and less of contemporary issues, or of the real modern problems facing the world or of those problems’ potential solutions. After all, the aging population can barely navigate the internet, and when they do, they join outmoded online social platforms like Facebook, for example, which widely betrays not only their own privacy, but also their naiveté about the potential hazards of their behavior.

When they do understand something, their understanding may be tinged with baseness. Even their most animated conceptions may be laced with the vice which they have encountered repeatedly in their long lives.

Henry IV part II, BBC TV movie, 1979. Dir by David Giles with Sir Anthony Quayle as Sir John Falstaff.

In the end, the aging ones may drink to muster something–to recapture youth, or to numb the pain of growing old. The elder becomes a strange mix of frightened and frightening, of true grit and the unforgiven. Seldom needed, often forgotten and forsaken, they turn to what they can to fill increasingly empty nights and days.

Robert Frost described it too, this mutual emptying of an elder’s inside and outside worlds:

An Old Man’s Winter Night

All out of doors looked darkly in at him
Through the thin frost, almost in separate stars,
That gathers on the pane in empty rooms.
What kept his eyes from giving back the gaze
Was the lamp tilted near them in his hand.
What kept him from remembering what it was
That brought him to that creaking room was age.
He stood with barrels round him—at a loss.
And having scared the cellar under him
In clomping there, he scared it once again
In clomping off;—and scared the outer night,
Which has its sounds, familiar, like the roar
Of trees and crack of branches, common things,
But nothing so like beating on a box.
A light he was to no one but himself
Where now he sat, concerned with he knew what,
A quiet light, and then not even that.
He consigned to the moon,—such as she was,
So late-arising,—to the broken moon
As better than the sun in any case
For such a charge, his snow upon the roof,
His icicles along the wall to keep;
And slept. The log that shifted with a jolt
Once in the stove, disturbed him and he shifted,
And eased his heavy breathing, but still slept.
One aged man—one man—can’t fill a house,
A farm, a countryside, or if he can,
It’s thus he does it of a winter night.

This gradual emptying out of both the human and the world around them is the real adversary, the real Satan. The evil of age lies not so much in what the aging themselves still need as it does in how little they may be needed. Their words and thoughts are less and less frequently heeded or regarded, if they are ever heeded at all. Younger and cleverer heads go on to do the thinking, run the companies, teach in schools and universities in what is always an increasingly modern world.

Where does this lead us?

Yes, individually we age. We decay. Dissolve. Become empty. Husks of what we were. Owls hooting of youth into a vacant night. And now the world does too.

Mistress Quickly describes Sir John Falstaff’s death in terms of the natural world:

He parted ev’n just between twelve
and one, ev’n at the turning o’ th’ tide; for after I saw
him fumble with the sheets and play with flowers
and smile upon his finger’s end, I knew there was
but one way, for his nose was as sharp as a pen and
he talked of green fields.

Henry V 2.3.12-17

Perhaps, as many might be quick to point out, it has been the disregard of older generations which have led the world to the brink of the void. Certainly, Greta Thunberg is right. Politicians everywhere have been panderers to the worst bases of corporate and individual greed. The human world now stands at the very margins of impending emptiness, and previous generations have too long ignored our effects on our climate.

Yet, at this moment we cannot afford to disregard any single human voice which might offer suggestions. We cannot afford to exclude thinkers from participation based on gender, ethnicity, or age. Thoughts which might help to open new perspectives or precipitate new methods may come from any source now–even perhaps from older, more experienced, and increasingly disregarded minds.

When the next tide turns, it may take more with it than just one old Shakespearean character. So, in the eleventh hour before that ebb and flow, it might be worthwhile to set aside the impulse that an elder might have already had his or her say, that they might have had their chance, or might have nothing left to teach. It might be worth one more passing of the talking stick to hear what the elders–not the politicians, but community elders who live amongst–us might say as well. We exclude them, even casually, at our greatest peril.

*Hoare, Philip. The Sea Inside. London: Fourth Estate, 2013, 34. (Highly recommended)

**Unforgiven manipulated the western trope of black and white hats, villains and ‘good guys’ by populating the western landscape with questionable individuals in all roles, and giving us the central character of Will Munny, a cold blooded killer who, try as he might, has never been really good at anything except killing people.

***A Trick to Catch the Old One was entered in the Stationer’s Register in 1607, and the quarto was printed in 1608. Middleton may have written the play around 1605. The first quarto states that it had been acted by the Children of Paul’s–one of the popular boys’ theatre troups of the time.

****A New Way to Pay Old Debts which was printed in 1633, may have been written in 1625 when the theatres were closed due to bubonic plague. It played until theatres closed in 1642 during the English Civil War, but It was also revived after the Restoration and Sir Giles Over-reach remained a popular villain even into the 19th century.

*****Adapted and directed by Sir Kenneth Branagh, the clip features Branagh as Prince Hal, Robbie Coltrane (who also played Rubeus Hagrid in the Harry Potter movies) as Sir John Falstaff, Richard Briers as Bardolph, Geoffrey Hutchings as Nym, Robert Stephens as Pistol, Dame Judi Dench as Mistress Quickly, and a young Christian Bale as the boy.

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

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.)

Turn, hellhound, turn!

Distant wildfire smoke. Author photo.

Hour approaching twilight. King making his way through the castle. Sword arm aching. Tired. Sword heavy. Crown heavy.

King. Not like he thought.

Distant battle sounds barely register. Scraping metal. Crashes. Thumps. Muffled shouts. Footsteps. Faint smell of smoke.

Push her away. Her absence looms. Push away her being gone.

No matter. Trees have come to Dunsinane.

MACDUFF: Turn, hellhound, turn!
Of all men else I have avoided thee.
But get thee back. My soul is too much charged
With blood of thine already.
MACDUFF: I have no words;
My voice is in my sword, thou bloodier villain
Than terms can give thee out.

Macbeth 5.8.4-10

We know this moment. High noon. Midnight. Where time stops. What registers by the watch ceases to matter. This is our collective moment of the final clash, the gunfight, the battle for ourselves, whomever our opponent may seem to be.

A minute past midnight. Author photo.

The showdown embodies our own dark night of the soul. As San Juan De La Cruz put it:

Once in the dark of night,
Inflamed with love and yearning, I arose
(O coming of delight!)
And went, as no one knows,
When all my house lay long in deep repose

All in the dark went right,
Down secret steps, disguised in other clothes,
(O coming of delight!)
In dark when no one knows,
When all my house lay long in deep repose.

And in the luck of night
In secret places where no other spied
I went without my sight
Without a light to guide
Except the heart that lit me from inside.

It guided me and shone
Surer than noonday sunlight over me,
And led me to the one
Whom only I could see
Deep in a place where only we could be.

O guiding dark of night!
O dark of night more darling than the dawn!
O night that can unite
A lover and loved one,
Lover and loved one moved in unison.

And on my flowering breast
Which I had kept for him and him alone
He slept as I caressed
And loved him for my own,
Breathing an air from redolent cedars blown.

And from the castle wall

The wind came down to winnow through his hair
Bidding his fingers fall,
Searing my throat with air
And all my senses were suspended there.

I stayed there to forget.
There on my lover, face to face, I lay.
All ended, and I let
My cares all fall away

Forgotten in the lilies on that day.

“Dark Night of the Soul” by St. John of the Cross. 16th Century. Trans. A.Z. Foreman.*

Dark and light. Author photo.

Humans are torn by our dualistic nature. Polarization seethes within us like soft ice cream, both delicious and deadly. Sexual reproduction saves us and damns us. Our very regeneration arrives through temptation and potential damnation. Our pure spiritual aspirations don’t always hang so well on the frame of our needy, greedy flesh. Spirit yearns for one kind of being, flesh for another. Spirit seeks more spirit. Flesh hankers after more flesh. Why are the tastiest foods always so bad for us?

Naturally, “once you get used to them, the healthy foods actually taste better!”

Yes. Yes. We know. But the beer may also taste awfully good.

Our subsequent restlessness becomes tortured sleeplessness, only to be resolved by confrontation and union, in the darkness. The soul meeting with the Soul. Union of the self with the Self. This can be peaceful, but it is also, especially in literature and the arts, so often represented as being violent.

We struggle over the soul of our own humanity, whether that presents itself as the soul of a nation, of a village, or of an individual. Whether internal or external, this meeting of dark and light in flux is often a battle. And only on the other side of that, “when the battle’s lost and won” may we find eventual salvation or peace.**

Our struggle may be with aspects within ourselves, or with an intractable social fabric. Here’s a scene from 42 with the very recently departed Chadwick Boseman as Jackie Robinson:

42, Dir. Brian Hegeland, featuring Chadwick Boseman and Harrison Ford. Warner Brothers, 2013.

Of course, there is no permanent solution. Not until we meet the solace of the grave (and perhaps not even then). The ongoing nature of this struggle is the reason we remain perenially obsessed with this opposition–writing it and reframing it again and again, the strange violence within it appealing to our more bestial natures. Grimly fascinated by the violence within ourselves.

In Macbeth, the struggle of the self with the self becomes apparent on multiple levels. For example, the characters of Macbeth and Macduff are strikingly similar. Like the fungible male lovers, Demetrius and Lysander, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, not much really distinguishes the two thanes in Macbeth. In many respects, they are almost interchangeable. Both men initially serve King Duncan. Both are married. Prone to similar kinds of introspection, they often speak in similar ways, and with similar cadences. Both live according to similar moral codes, and even their names are parallel, although Macduff has children while Macbeth does not.

Yet, Macbeth is shown a prophecy which drives him off course. His glimpse of the future drags him forwards in the same way that memory sometimes drags us into retrospection. The witches’ mention of the word ‘king’ tugs at the short hairs of Macbeth’s ambition, making him impatient with obsession. Macbeth finds himself unwilling to wait for his future to arrive in its own time, and of its own accord. Lady Macbeth’s nudging renders his present less immediate, less material. Ends begin to justify means.

If we extend the old metaphor of devil and angel dwelling inside each of us, we may see Macbeth and Macduff as embodying these two aspects of humanity. Each has positive and less positive qualities, but one appears to keep himself on the road, while the other departs into the rooky wood. Two roads diverge in Birnham Wood, and I, sorry I am only one traveler seeking both, abandon the white whale for the throne, the crown.

In the vernacular of the American western, the metaphor becomes a gunfight. And it represents the culmination of a profound mixture of memory, both sweet and vicious, and often a predatory kind of vengeance. There are many cinematic examples of this duel, but this one, directed by Sergio Leone, and scored by Ennio Morricone, captures the bittersweetness of human polarity. It shows us the ways in which the past often intrudes upon the present and renders the immediacy of the pull of memory with strong cinematic style:

For a Few Dollars More, Dir. Sergio Leone, featuring Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, and Gian Maria Volonté, Producioni Europee Associati (PEA)/United Artists, 1965.

In such moments, leave taking remains literal. In these stories, as in Macbeth, someone has died, and in a kind of exchange, someone else must die for that. Often, we sacrifice the dark parts of our own soul, cutting away our painful memories, our transgressions, our rages, and our sorrows. For it is only after our negatives have been expunged that a new king is able to again ascend the throne of humanity. The Christ story, the idea of one (a King) who dies for the sins of all humankind, is naturally one of the most familiar examples.

As for our sorrows, as for sins against our humanity, against our loves, these are so profound that they leave us incredulous in their aftermath. When Ross tells Macduff that his family is dead, Macduff almost cannot, at first, comprehend the words:

Let not your ears despise my tongue forever,
Which shall possess them with the heaviest sound
That ever yet they heard.
MACDUFF: Hum! I guess at it.
Your castle is surprised, your wife and babes
Savagely slaughtered. To relate the manner
Were on the quarry of these murdered deer
To add the death of you.
MALCOLM: Merciful heaven!—
What, man, ne’er pull your hat upon your brows.
Give sorrow words. The grief that does not speak
Whispers the o’erfraught heart and bids it break.
MACDUFF: My children too?
Wife, children, servants, all that could be found.
And I must be from thence? My wife killed too?
ROSS: I have said.
MALCOLM: Be comforted.
Let’s make us med’cines of our great revenge
To cure this deadly grief.
He has no children. All my pretty ones?
Did you say “all’? O hell-kite! All?
What, all my pretty chickens and their dam
At one fell swoop?
MALCOLM: Dispute it like a man.
MACDUFF: I shall do so,
But I must also feel it as a man.
I cannot but remember such things were
That were most precious to me. Did heaven look on
And would not take their part?

Macbeth 4.3.236-64

Our perceived duties and obligations may haunt us in such cases, turning to guilt. How we might have been here or there at such a moment, at such a time. How we might have handled things differently. Hindsight. What might have been. Regret. Bitterness.

The eventual resolution may offer an uneasy kind of peace, but it usually comes at a price, with a wounding or a sacrifice, and throughout the struggle, the self faces the threat of annihilation:

But the air was too full of noise and gun smoke for me to notice pain. Wasn’t bad pain anyway. I got the sights up for another shot, and heard bullets hit metal as Frenchy and Pablo fired. The chair swung around and there he was–or there it was–with both colts cocked and pointed at me.

The Devil & Streak Wilson by Daniel Boyd.***

American culture, with its undercurrent of violence, lends itself easily to the western genre. In the mythos of the fictional American West, one lives and dies by the sword, or by the six gun. Still, the fact that weapons have become such cultural talismans also remains deeply problematic. While those of us in the United States may imagine ourselves as dragon slayers, as gun toting protectors who maintain law and order, our social proliferation of weapons (currently supported by the NRA and a president who panders shamelessly to the ignorant side of American personal mythology) releases more dragons than all our weapons could slay.

Although I cannot know, it has been said that many modern Japanese people, especially males, tend to view themselves as modern day Samurai, adhering to a social and moral code of Bushido. Considering the ways in which corporate and self improvement protocols strive to foster carefully crafted ‘inner warrior’ ideals in the boardroom or in the psyche, such aspirations appear to remain only modern mythical constructs that hearken back to a set of bygone ideals which are themselves also constructs. Heightened rhetoric about guns and the Second Ammendment to the United States Constitution suggests that a fair number of Americans (usually males) view themselves somehow as heroic gunslingers, potentially representing little candles of law throwing beams in a naughty world.

The Second Ammendment to the United States Constitution actually says:

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.****

This speaks nothing to deeper morality or responsibility, let alone the dark night conjurations of those for whom firearms have become mythic totems for ideas of motley coated individual freedoms. The ongoing American fascination with firearms speaks its own dire warnings. Breonna Taylor? Jacob Blake? Brandon Laducer? That’s just a list of people shot by officers. What about the people shot while protesting, by others like Kyle Rittenhouse, who believed that they were maintaining law and order? “From the voiceless lips of the unreplying dead there comes no word.” “[Y]ea, they have slain the servants with the edge of the sword, and I only am escaped alone to tell thee.”***** How easily ideas may become dangerous, especially when wrapped in rhetoric about God, family, dreams, prosperity, and all the security blankets of our dreams, and placed into the hands of the misguided.

Perhaps we have seen too many vigilante moments in our plays and films. Some people attempt to act out these fictions in real life, forgetting that they are fictions, and the underlying cutural structure of racism too often rises to the surface in such cases as well. People have always been suspicious of ‘others’, and that suspicion seems to grow with our collective social guilt–increasing in direct proportion to how much the social and cultural fabrics we inhabit have wronged one group or another. And sadly, the history of individually and communally committed wrongs based on racial characteristics runs long a deep. Our stories present our cultural vernacular–seeking to present ourselves to ourselves, incorporating myths with which we explain ourselves and justify our actions. Yet, when the mythology of our own nobility, or our own heroism breaks down, we are often left facing ourselves again in the darkness as our own guilt rises up before us. The gunfight becomes a gunfight with the self, but some will always displace the shadow self–projecting it onto others, onto those who we believe ‘look’ different from us or believe differently from the way we believe.

Because fewer and fewer of us seem to be trained in critical thinking these days, perhaps because our educational budgets remain in tatters in the face of more capitalist centered political agendas, fewer people seem to have the proper capacity to evaluate words, behavior, and events. We begin to see Macbeth and Macduff not as characters in a cautionary tale, but as warriors to emulate. We begin to believe that we are samurai. Inwardly, we picture ourselves as characters portrayed by Clint Eastwood, and we fail to recall that those characters are fictive portrayals of a larger mythic structure.

If gunfighters or swordsmen illustrate anything for us, it should be to help us remember that the lives of real gunfighters in the historical American West were seldom glamorous or exciting. In fact, they were usually only really remarkable in being incredibly brief. Anger and vengeance as an actual lifestyle are almost never anything like they are in the movies, as even the movies often indicate:

The Princess Bride, Dir. Rob Reiner. Clip featuring Mandy Patinkin and Christopher Guest, 20th Century Fox, 1987.

Had the United States not worked so hard for so long at fostering its anti-intellect strains, more people might see how ludicrous such emulation is. Had people been taught to think, been schooled in recognizing misleading sales pitches, we might not be where we are. Yet, here we are.

Many Americans retain a strong sense of ‘cowboy’ identity, and romanticized versions of history and identity can be difficult to shake when they become so deeply ingrained:

Waylon Jennings, 1978. “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys”. Written by Ed and Patsy Bruce, 1976.

Yet, our general idea of cowboys derives from the cinema. We forget that, historically speaking, few cowboys carried sidearms. They couldn’t afford them, and a pistol isn’t all that useful when driving cattle. And rifles were for bagging small game for dinner, not for shooting protestors just because you somehow disagree with their message.

At the same time, many of us also fancy ourselves as ideological freedom fighters. Some of us babble incoherently about ‘freedom’ and ‘rights’ while seeming to have only the dimmest reptilian understanding of what those concepts might be or what responsibilities they might entail. Also, apparently surprising numbers of people think only of their own rights–as if rights were something assured in a vaccuum, even at the expense of fellow citizens or our communities. The right to carry firearms. The right not to wear a mask.

Yet, in spite of our independent freedom fighting, we seem to so easily fall for a confidence games. We believe what we perceive as the underlying substance in political speeches that are really only rhetorical tools–so often meaningless oral smoke and mirrors specifically designed to make us follow meekly while under the illusion that we might be asserting ourselves.

But what about the rugged individualist? Oh, the idea of that character is still out there too, and still a cowboy. The talismanic weapons have been updated, but the cowboy remains much the same:

Die Hard, Dir. John McTiernan. Clip featuring Bruce Willis and Alan Rickman, 20th Century Fox, 1988.

These are fiction, of course, but they are fictions of an especially deep and resonant kind, because, in ways both good and bad, they speak to the personal mythology of identity. And it is important to note that politicians use these ideas repeatedly everywhere.

If a politician proclaims that an “America First” agenda must include putting immigrant children in cages and destroying their families, one has to wonder how anyone can support it. Yet, chillingly, people do. Perhaps because those children–really just children–are cast through tricks of political rhetoric into the menacing role of the ‘others’ in our mythology. Administrations that threaten legal protestors–their own citizens–with federal troops can espouse no real concerns about human liberty or safety, but once those protestors have been cast as ‘others’ the perspective changes. Such policy and rhetorical perspective, substituting words like “riot” in place of “protest”, results in a consistent erosion of real human rights beneath the subterfuge of rhetorical posturing. This is how people like Hitler rise to power.

It becomes difficult to overstate how wrong headed such unevaluated mythical thinking is. We are not really our myths. We make them. And we can either choose to take the myths that others would craft for us at face value, and follow like sheep into the fold, or we can forge our own–recrafting our own myths and our own understanding as true warriors, as those who think for ourselves.

The real truth is (whether you choose to believe it or not) is that people need each other. We need other people, we need other cultures, we need other faiths, and we need other countries. People everywhere should take care of each other and not just of themselves. Needless to say, reasonable people, don’t shoot each other.

This is not to say that our inclusion should be blind. We should not encourage untreated hemophiliacs to work with kitchen knives. But when we begin to cast people whom we may not truly understand as malevolent others, then we begin to stray from the true path of understanding. For our smaller concerns are just that. They are small.

Exclusion really only cuts away our own humanitiy, leaving us pitifully diminished in its wake. On the other hand, inclusion supports the better side of us, nurturing the angel in our human natures. Inclusion allows us not only to see different people more clearly, but also to treat them as they really are–as part of us in the larger sense, as part of the greater whole that comprises the global human community.

Of course governments and policies may shift, as they have in the past. However, should the political system in the U.S. keep to its present course in the next election (which, sadly, looks entirely possible at present), Birnham Wood will eventually come to Dunsinane again.

In one sense, Macduff may be understood as a representation of our flawed but nobly striving humanity. An as long as we survive, he will always be out there. Should things take a turn for the worse, he will eventually appear again on the doorstep, voice in his sword, ready for change. When that day comes, our most important task will be to stand with him.

For now, we can do our best to stand with humanity today. For all my readers worldwide, I urge you to continue to observe safety protocols, recycle what you can, and try to minimise practices which might contribute more to climate change. Tell your family and friends that you love them. Tell them today and remind them often.

For readers in the U.S., I encourage everyone to try to take fewer postal shipments in October and early November to help alleviate postal congestion at those times. Also, most of all, please remember to cast your vote either by mail (which mail ballots may most often be dropped off at your local election office), or in person for the November 3rd presidential election. Remember that you may register, check your voter’s registration and/or request a voter’s ballot by mail at

Take good care out there, and best of luck to you all.

*Saint John of the Cross. “The Dark Night of the Soul”. 16th century. A.Z. Foreman, trans. In the original Spanish:

La Noche Oscura Del Alma
San Juan De La Cruz

Cançiones del alma que se goça d’auer llegado al alto estado de la perfecçion, que es la union con Dios, por el camino de la negaçion espiritual

En una noche obscura,
con ansias en amores imflamada,
¡oh dichosa uentura!
sali sin ser notada,
estando ya mi casa sosegada.

A escuras y segura,
por la secreta escala disfraçada,
¡oh dichosa uentura!
a escuras y ençelada,
estando ya mi casa sosegada.

En la noche dichosa,
en secreto, que nadie me ueya,
ni yo miraua cosa,
sin otra luz ni guia
sino la que en el coraçon ardia.

Aquesta me guiaua
mas cierto que la luz del mediodia,
adonde me esperaua
quien yo bien me sabia,
en parte donde nadie parecia.

¡Oh noche que me guiaste!
¡oh noche amable mas que el aluorada!,
¡oh noche que juntaste
amado con amada,
amada en el amado transformada!

Y en mi pecho florido,
que entero para el solo se guardaua,
alli quedo dormido,
y yo le regalaua,
y el ventalle de cedros ayre daua.

El ayre de la almena,
cuando ya sus cabellos esparzia,
con su mano serena
en mi cuello heria,
y todos mis sentidos suspendia.

Quedeme y oluideme,
el rostro recline sobre el amado,
ceso todo, y dexeme,
dexando mi cuidado
entre las açucenas olvidado.

**Macbeth 1.1.4

***Daniel Boyd. The Devil & Streak Wilson. (Oakland: Montag Press, 2020), ebook. Also available in paperback on Amazon. Boyd’s tale presents the metaphor of self struggle in a significant way, by couching the duel with the devil in the western vernacular.

****This is arguably the earliest version, and the one ratified by Delaware. Other states have ratified different versions, often changing the placement of the commas. The original idea stems from the English Bill of Rights of 1869 which says, in part, “That the Subjects which are Protestants may have Arms for their Defense suitable to their Conditions and as allowed by Law”.

*****The first line comes from Robert Ingersoll’s words spoken at the grave of his brother, Ebon. The entire oratory is recorded in the Works of Robert G. Ingersoll, collected by his brother, Clinton P. Farrell, and may be read here: The second line comes from Job 1:15 in the King James version of the Bible.

A gap in nature

Simon Schama’s monumental work, Landscape and Memory, asserts that nature and human consciousness cannot be independent of each other–that any appreciation of landscape may only approach completeness when it acknowledges the reciprocity of nature and culture in our understanding.* As Thoreau put it, “It is in vain to dream of a wildness distant from ourselves. There is none such.”** Enobarbus’s famous speech from Antony and Cleopatra, from which the title of this post has been taken, strongly suggest this interdependence as well.

In relating to Agrippa how Antony could have been so immediately taken with Cleopatra, Enobarbus describes the overwhelmingly intoxicating beauty and grandeur of the moment when Antony first sees the Egyptian queen, enthroned on her royal barge. In the speech, barge, water, retinue, and Cleopatra herself become an intertwined whole, an exhilarating landscape of overpowering immanent sensation. Anchoring the speech in Cleopatra’s person, that “beggared all description” (AC 2.2.208), Enobarbus’s illustration animates even the landscape itself, as the described moment seems to brighten so that the city and its emptying become as responsive as those who inhabit it:

The city cast
Her people out upon her, and Antony,
Enthroned i’th’ market-place, did sit alone,
Whistling to th’air, which, but for vacancy,
Had gone to gaze on Cleopatra, too,
And made a gap in nature.
(AC 2.2.223-28)

Under the influence of Cleopatra’s presence, Antony’s strength and majesty diminishes, becoming as empty as the air that only remains because it defines the vacancy that remains after everyone and everything else has gone. This foreshadows Antony’s decline over the course of the play, increasingly linking him to desolation and abandonment. Cleopatra’s being remains one of overwhelming strength of presence, with her petulance and passions only adding dimension and texture to her appeal. Her “strange invisible perfume hits the sense/Of the adjacent wharfs” (2.2.222) while Antony sits “alone/Whistling to th’air”.*** The landscape that Enobarbus describes is as much a landscape of water, of people, and of the city as it is a landscape of time–an isolated moment when Antony’s power slips in light of the weighty joss of Cleopatra’s significant existence.

In the song “If I had a Boat”, singer/songwriter Lyle Lovett sings:

And if I were like lightning
I wouldn’t need no sneakers
I’d come and go wherever I would please
And I’d scare ’em by the shade tree
And I’d scare ’em by the light pole
But I would not scare my pony on my boat out on the sea

In fact, as the song suggests, Lovett is like lightning. His observations and perceptions reflect a manipulation of consciousness that effortlessly transports him to and from various hypothetical situations and settings in and around his envisioned boat. Like Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, he not only changes shape, but fluidly moves between the worlds of mortals and immortals, playhouse stage and audience, song and listener. His lightning remains conscious, assuming a choice of what and where to scare, stepping across boundaries of boat, shade tree, and light pole like a fairy, or like a player stepping from the shadows of fiction to become a voice for the play itself:

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. (AMND 5.1.209-24)

The famous call for applause, asking to “Give me your hands” also suggests a friendly clasping or shaking of hands, with the image of the fairy or the player reaching out of the dark, dreaming shadow of the playhouse to take the hands of the audience in amity while accepting their praise.

Notoriously liminal, fairies as boundary crossers range far beyond Shakespeare’s Dream, and Diane Purkiss reminds us that “no one would link fairies with reason”.**** Yet, fairies are often linked with landscape, part and parcel of the nature from which they often emerge, and into which they may just as suddenly fade. But, as connected as these anthropomorphic spirits may be to landscape, they only reflect a singular aspect of ways in which our consciousness links to observations of the world.

The anthropic principle asserts that observations of the universe have a reciprocal participation with those sentient beings who observe it. The idea that we co-create our own universe is hardly new, and neither is the idea that the universe may only be here because we are here to perceive it. Yet, somehow, in creating our landscapes (be they literal or conceptual–if there is a difference), we also may become walled up within them. Hamlet’s prison Denmark does not seem a prison to Rosencrantz or Guildenstern. Denmark may well be a prison to Ophelia as well, judging by her attempts to escape the place or its events by retreating inwards–into the tangles in her mind, and into nature’s liquid embrace.

Hamlet steps into his revenge and becomes an inhabitant of a ‘revenge tragedy’ over which brooding Elsinore and its environs remain grim observers. Richard III assumes the mantle of power in an eroded and eroding landscape of kingship, only to gradually lose his previous fluid communication with the audience. Othello assumes command on distant Cyprus while Iago prompts the distant wilderness in Othello’s own mind to take command of the commander. The reciprocity, the mutual participation of genre landscape, psychological landscape, spiritual landscape, and emotional landscape remains deafening. Lear’s storm shaken heath and Lear himself are the same. The king is the land. The prince is his conception of the world. The commander is the sea eating at the rocks beneath his own feet.

Antony meets Cleopatra at the moment of her exhalation:

I saw her once 
Hop forty paces through the public street; 
And having lost her breath, she spoke, and panted, 
That she did make defect perfection, 
And, breathless, powre breathe forth. (AC 2.2.238-42)

Critics may favour one of two possible interpretations of that last line (for which I have left the original spelling here), but I wonder why might the line not assume both meanings–that Cleopatra was yet able to ‘pour breath forth’, or to breathe, and that she was also able to ‘power breath forth’, or to breathe or emanate power. There is an ancient Tai Chi exercise focuses on our exchange of energy or breath with the universe around us, and it is often described in terms of breathing, of exchanging breath with one’s environment. Given the tremendous variety of participations in, and exchanges with the environment that Shakespearean characters so often display, why might not Cleopatra’s exhalation be as grand and powerful as the rest of her descriptors?

This might explain why, when Antony beholds her, his already enriched susceptibility to, and participation in considerations of power bends before Cleopatra’s sway. He breathes vacancy while she exudes her powerful magnetism over populace and landscape alike. Like town and water, Antony responds to her already potent participation in the very air he breathes, and like the waves, the town, and the air itself, this commander of a third of the world turns, perhaps almost involuntarily, to participate in Cleopatra as well.

When the family finally leaves the great house in John Crowley’s novel, Little, Big, the great house that forms the central landscape for much of the story is abandoned too:

One by one the bulbs burned out, like long lives come to their expected ends. Then there was a dark house made once of time, made now of weather, and harder to find; impossible to find and not even as easy to dream of as when it was alight. Stories last longer: but only be becoming only stories.*****

In the end, Crowley’s story remains irretrievably intertwined with the landscape in which it takes place. The house empties because it had always been a stepping stone to a kingdom of which it had only ever been a pale reflection. With one notable exception, the characters’ lives no longer need the structure’s momentum in order to progress, in order to become or to evolve.

Events may also serve as such markers–pinning the consciousness of human experience, however obliquely, to particular moments in time, which may look either forwards or backwards, or even in both directions at once. In Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, Gus and Hannah begin to waltz while they remain separated by time from a fatal fire in the distant past, while simultaneously, in the same room but in a previous time, Septimus and Thomasina also waltz, insensible to the devastating fire that for them is yet to come.

For Antony and Cleopatra, doom is already integral to the landscape and the story they inhabit. Their love devours them, eating structure, story, and their being around them. Neither Rome nor Egypt can shelter them in the end because their passion outgrows their story and their place. Even their lives become too small at last.

In the end, the lilac blooms of childhood inform the lilacs of today, the latter never smelling as sweet as those that we remember. No summers like. No winters neither. Her laughter. The way he walked along a long ago road. Story and landscape, character and setting, moment and the play itself, all are as inseparable as we are from our own world of which all these elements reflect various facets of our experience. Weather, water, time, and the very stones describe our mutual promiscuity with, and our participation in the landscapes of our ever moving human lives, in spite of however removed from any given landscape we may believe ourselves to be.

*Schama, Simon. Landscape and Memory. New York: Vintage, 1996.

**Thoreau, Henry David. The Journal 1837-1861. Edited by Damion Searls. Forward by John R. Stilgoe. New York: New York Review Books (NYRB), 2009.

***Just a note that, for the purposes of this blog, I most often use the Arden series of Shakespeare texts, when I have them.

****Purkiss, Diane. At the Bottom of the Garden: A Dark History of Fairies, Hobgoblins, and Other Troublesome Things. New York: New York University Press, 2003. Even the title of the U.S. version of the book is locative, however small a place it may reflect.

*****Crowley, John. Little, Big. New York: Bantam, 1981.

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