Notes for Vespers Talks (So Far) + Pericles

aquinasWeek 1 Handout *** Week 2 Handout

…PS. Had to drive to the See city of Richmond for a meeting. Enjoyed Shakespeare’s Pericles en route. The Arkangel cast includes two familiar voices: one from the Colin Firth/Jennifer Ehle BBC Pride and Prejudice, and the other from All Creatures Great and Small. Christopher Timothy speaks Cleon and Christopher Benjamin voices Simonides on the CD.

Pericles amazes. Just when you think the next plot twist couldn’t possibly be any more outlandish than the preceding one…the Bard delivers. The play, though set in an altogether pagan world, represents the virtue of religion (in the person of Pericles) and also makes great hay with the dead coming back to life. It’s also very helpful for New-Testament geography.

If Pericles were up for best picture, I would turn on the tv on Sunday. As it is, I’m rooting for “Silver Linings Playbook.”

Christopher BenjaminChristopher Timothy

On First Recognizing Jennifer Ehle’s Voice on Film

I found the following scribbled on a slip of paper, tucked into the public library’s copy of the 1995 BBC Pride and Prejudice:

On First Recognizing Jennifer Ehle’s Voice on Film

Does she thus live? With such eyes, cheekbones, and lips?
With this quietly furnaced fire?

It began with the springtime-mountain-brook sound filling the car,
highway hours moving with Propero’s Miranda.
A daughter’s duty spoken gently; articulate, sweet.
The Prince lands, and The Tempest’s breathless Eve
beholds her Adam. Her voice keeps the fruit ripe on the branches.

Then, a lazy evening with a set of DVDs: O heavenly God,
do you so ply both lute and brush together?
Darcy’s Eliza—a sister and friend
with the same patient music of duty,
now gamboling on the dale with glistening eyes!
now standing her ground under an autumn arbor
with steel-spined zeal for truth,
admitting to herself error, but not defeat.

My Bard, my dear Jane Austen: never despair.
The fulfillment of these, your heroines,
time has given freely.
Check the jewel cases. Both credits read:
played by Jennifer Ehle.


1. Keats invented the genre, as you may recall. We tried it here last spring.

2. In between the news and various forms of tune-age, one might enjoy the Arkangel Shakespeare for company in the car.

King Lear is King

For fifteen years I have unswervingly held that Richard II is Shakespeare’s best play. My reasoning was this:

1. There is not one wasted word in Richard II. Every line of every speech contributes to building up the tragedy.

2. No one has ever defended the idea that kings rule by divine right so beautifully as King Richard does.

3. Even though he comes out of the gate at the beginning of the play as an insufferable, self-deluded madman, Richard winds up winning your sympathy anyway. At first he seems to be fatally flawed by delusions of grandeur, but in fact his grand illusions turn out to be truly noble.

These are really solid reasons for thinking that Richard II is best, and there are more reasons which I could offer. But I have to admit that I was wrong. I was totally wrong. Richard II is not the best.

This change of heart has been building for a couple of years. King Lear has always intrigued me. Harold Bloom, a formidable commentator, does not hesitate to choose King Lear as the best. Two summers ago I finally started to get a real grip on the play, when I watched the 1974 Central Park performance, with Raul Julia as Edmund and James Earl Jones as King Lear.

As I drove down to the seashore for my day off yesterday, I listened to the Arkangel King Lear for the fourth time. It utterly crushed me. I will never be the same.

I have always thought that the opening scene of King Lear has even more drama than Alfred Hitchcock’s entire oeuvre. And I would have freely acknowledged years ago that King Lear also does what Richard II does: makes you fall in love with a king who seems insane—who is insane—but who turns out to be the one who really understands things.

The storm scene on the heath, however, has finally conquered me altogether. Don’t get me wrong: it left me breathless before. King Lear raging against the forces of chaos and dissolution, with his Fool under his cloak, is more powerful than all of twentieth-century poetry and philosophy rolled-up together. But yesterday afternoon I felt for the first time the second-part of that scene’s one-two punch: just when you are in the grips of this existential reverie on human solitude, Shakespeare sneaks up and daggers your heart with Edgar, disguised as Poor Tom, seeing his beloved father, who has unjustly condemned him.

I am not given to weeping. I have been accused on being machine-like, emotionally austere. I did not, in fact, weep in the car yesterday afternoon. But I was darn close.

Please allow me to reiterate that it has taken me years of effort to attain the appreciation of King Lear that I now have. (I am rather slow…) King Lear is not exactly easy to deal with. But it is worth it! It is worth it! King Lear is best.

Shakespeare’s Bad Plays

Back in 2006, I was visiting one of the most excellent Catholic families I know, and they brought ought a special item to show me.  It was a box containing CD recordings of all of Shakespeare’s plays.  An all-star troupe of actors had enacted them all, and they were performed so as to communicate the action via sound only.  (Excellent sound effects are employed.)  It is called the “Arkangel Shakespeare.”


I said at the time that if I were not a Christian man, I would have gotten down and worshipped this box of CDs as if it were a god or a talisman of consummate holiness.  As it is, I saved up my Mass stipends for a few months, and then ordered my own Arkangel Shakespeare from Amazon.  (It is also possible to order individual plays, by the way.)


So whenever I am in my car, if I am not either praying, or meditating, or rocking-out a little bit, I listen to the plays of William Shakespeare.  I have had the collection for over two years now, so of course I have listened to all the favorites of the high-school and college English classes of my bygone days:  Julius Caesar, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, King Lear, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Much Ado About Nothing, both Parts of Henry IV, Henry V, Richard III, etc.


I enjoy the comedies, of course (especially Taming of the Shrew, which always makes me think of the Moonlighting spoof of it, with Bruce Willis in rare form as Petrucchio).  But I love intense drama more than young lovers getting confused or being turned into animals by fairies.  My favorite Shakespearean effect is when the action of the play feels like the slow tightening of a vice.  Because they employ this effect to perfection, my two favorite Shakespeares are Richard II and Coriolanus.


The fact is, though, that when you have a box full of CDs of every play Shakespeare ever wrote, and you have a lot of time on your hands in the car to listen to them all, you come to realize that they are not all good.


The only one I have popped out of the CD player before the first disc even got finished is Titus Andronicus.  I could not deal with someone’s tongue being cut out.  The last two times someone dragged me to a horror movie, I have fainted both times.


Shakespeare wrote not one, not two, but three plays about King Henry VI.  They are all bad; they are all boring—even though St. Joan or Arc is in them (so you know they are very bad).


Henry VIII is also inexplicably tedious.  Even though the history involved is extremely dramatic, somehow the play lumbers along so stolidly that you hardly care whether Henry gets his annulment or not.


The fact that this is Shakespeare, however, never completely vanishes.  The Duke of Buckingham does not just call Cardinal Wolsey ‘fat.’  Instead, he says:


“I wonder that such a keech (slang for a chunk of beef fat)

Can with his very bulk take up the rays o’ th’

Beneficial sun and keep it from the earth.”


Keep that in reserve for when you need a good insult.  (But try not to be mean-spirited about it.)