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Tarnmoor’s ABCs: William Shakespeare

The Famous Droeshout Portrait of the Bard

The Famous Droeshout Portrait of the Bard

All the blog posts in this series are based on Czeslaw Milosz’s book Milosz’s ABC’s. There, in the form of a brief and alphabetically-ordered personal encyclopedia, was the story of the life of a Nobel Prize winning poet, of the people, places, and things that meant the most to him.

My own ABCs consist of places I have loved (Iceland, Patagonia, Quebec, Scotland), things I feared (Earthquakes), writers I have admired (Chesterton, Balzac, Proust, and Borges); locales associated with my past life (Cleveland, Dartmouth College, and UCLA), people who have influenced me (John F. Kennedy), foods I love (Olives and Tea), and things I love to do (Automobiles and Books). This blog entry is my own humble attempt to imitate a writer whom I have read on and off for thirty years without having sated my curiosity. Consequently, over the weeks to come (there are only three letters left in the alphabet: X, Y, and Z), you will see a number of postings under the heading “Tarnmoor’s ABCs” that will attempt to do for my life what Milosz accomplished for his. To see my other entries under this category, hit the tag below marked “ABCs”. Today is W for William Shakespeare.

On one hand, it is pretty easy to make fun of the Immortal Bard. The following is from Jonathan Miller’s On Further Reflection: 60 Years of Writing:

Take this my hand, and you fair Essex this
And with this bond we’ll cry anon
And shout Jack Cock o’London to the foe.

Or: “Is it botched up then, Master Puke?” Or: “Now is steel ’twixt gut and bladder interposed.”

If one is not in the habit of reading difficult or old works, tackling Shakespeare can be a chore. His rich, even overripe, use of language goes against everything we have been taught about written communication. And yet, and yet, there are many complex thoughts and emotions that have never been better expressed before or since.

Over the last six months, I have been reading the “tetralogy” of Henry VI Parts 1, 2, and 3, followed by Richard III. Not too many people venture to read Henry VI, but from them come some great thoughts, such as this from Part 2, scene 3:

What stronger breast-plate than a heart untainted!
Thrice is he arm’d, that hath his quarrel just;
And he but naked, though lock’d up in steel,
Whose conscience with injustice is corrupted.

Also from Henry VI comes such phrases as “main chance,” “let’s kill all the lawyers,” “I owe him little duty and less love,” “O, tiger’s heart, wrapped in a woman’s hide!,” and “hasty marriage seldom proveth well.”

And yet these are all in a minor key when you compare them to the four great tragedies—Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear, and Othello—which will shake the world of whoever reads, hears, or sees the plays. Take this from the wretched Lear in Act IV:

Ay, every inch a king:
When I do stare, see how the subject quakes.
I pardon that man’s life. — What was thy cause? —
Adultery? —
Thou shalt not die: die for adultery! No:
The wren goes to’t, and the small gilded fly
Does lecher in my sight.
Let copulation thrive; for Gloster’s bastard son
Was kinder to his father than my daughters
Got ’tween the lawful sheets.
To’t, luxury, pell-mell! for I lack soldiers. —
Behold yond simpering dame,
Whose face between her forks presages snow;
That minces virtue, and does shake the head
To hear of pleasure’s name; —
The fitchew nor the soiled horse goes to’t
With a more riotous appetite
Down from the waist they are centaurs,
Though women all above.
But to the girdle do the gods inherit,
Beneath is all the fiend’s; there’s hell, there’s darkness,
There is the sulphurous pit; burning, scalding, stench, consumption! — fie, fie, fie! pah, pah! Give me an ounce of civet, good apothecary, to sweeten my imagination: there’s money for thee.

I will continue reading the history plays, and then I’ll tackle the tragedies and comedies again. Shakespeare just gets deeper as you continue reading. One is never done with him.