Wetted County

Rain and snow fall from the sky. The water that lands on the Buck, Bent, and Poor Mountain peaks of the Blue Ridge–not to mention Tinker Mountain, Fulhardt Knob, the Peaks of Otter, and many others–this water flows down towards the Atlantic Ocean via the Roanoke River, which is also called the Staunton River.

East of the Blue Ridge, in the hills where moonshine flowed like water in the Prohibition Era, Smith Mountain rises as a solitary ridge. West of the mountain, the hills crinkle up like folds of crumpled paper.

Roanoke River watershed
Since the springtime of the world, the Roanoke River has flown through the Smith Mountain pass, or gorge. On September 24, 1963, mankind (specifically, the Appalachian Power Company) interrupted the flow of the river with a colossal hydroelectric dam. Over the course of the next two and a half years, the water backed up to wet all the earth that lies lower than 800 feet above sea level.

Paved roads, underwater; trees and ruined barns and God only knows what else. Now Tom Brady fans ride jet-skis over what were once tobacco fields where Booker T. Washington might have gone for walks when he was a boy.

Amazing world.

One of the roads that leads to the campsites at Smith Mountain Lake State Park used to be a country road that ran past the front door of a farmhouse. A couple of years ago, an Eagle Scout rebuilt the three-person swing that the farmer put up for his family.

…Speaking of amazing, we cannot take our leave of Shakespeare’s Richard III without contemplating the speech King Richard gives in Scene 3 of Act V. Night falls on the eve of the Battle of Bosworth Field. The souls of all the king’s murder victims come to him in his dream and condemn him: “Despair and die.”

Richard awakes in a cold sweat.

What do I fear? myself? there’s none else by:
Richard loves Richard; that is, I am I.
Is there a murderer here? No. Yes, I am:
Then fly. What, from myself? Great reason why:
Lest I revenge. What, myself upon myself?
Alack. I love myself. Wherefore? for any good
That I myself have done unto myself?
O, no! alas, I rather hate myself
For hateful deeds committed by myself!
I am a villain: yet I lie. I am not.
Fool, of thyself speak well: fool, do not flatter.
My conscience hath a thousand several tongues,
And every tongue brings in a several tale,
And every tale condemns me for a villain.
Perjury, perjury, in the high’st degree
Murder, stem murder, in the direst degree;
All several sins, all used in each degree,
Throng to the bar, crying all, Guilty! guilty!
I shall despair. There is no creature loves me;
And if I die, no soul shall pity me:
Nay, wherefore should they, since that I myself
Find in myself no pity to myself?
Methought the souls of all that I had murder’d
Came to my tent; and every one did threat
To-morrow’s vengeance on the head of Richard.

The scene in “The Two Towers” movie where Smeagol and Gollum debate each other: perhaps whoever wrote it was inspired by this speech of King Richard’s. (Tokien did not write the part where Gollum accuses Smeagol of committing murder.)

Bored Evil

In Emma by Jane Austen, Emma’s confidante Harriet Smith expostulates when Emma declares that she does not intend to marry: “But you will become a pitiable old maid!” Emma replies:

If I know myself, Harriet, mine is an active, busy mind, with a great many independent resources; and I do not perceive why I should be more in want of employment at forty or fifty than one-and-twenty. Woman’s usual occupations of eye and hand and mind will be as open to me then as they are now.

Emma’s confidence in her future prospects of wholesome activity helps to solve a riddle that has been thrust before us by Shakespeare’s “first tetralogy” of history plays.

The last of these four plays presents us with one of drama’s most infamous characters, King Richard III. Part of the speech with which Richard opens the play reads as follows:

Grim-visaged war hath smooth’d his wrinkled front;
And now, instead of mounting barded steeds
To fright the souls of fearful adversaries,
He capers nimbly in a lady’s chamber
To the lascivious pleasing of a lute.
But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks,
Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass;
…I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity:
And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.

The malevolence of the Duke of Gloucester pushes the limits of believability. He conspires to have his one brother order the other’s execution; then Richard himself sends in the assasins. He marries one widow with the sole intention of eventually having her killed. He has his best friend executed on a pretext. He orders the execution of his two young nephews. He betrays the confederate whose scheme lifted him to the throne. He lays plans to marry his young niece, in order then to have her killed.

In other words, Richard III is, as his own mother puts it, an “ill-dispersing wind of misery, a cockatrice whose unavoided eye is murderous.”

Sinon tricked the Trojans into bringing the horse into the city
But there is no denying: The most clever, the most intelligent character in the play is: Richard. And there is no denying that the strongest, most adventurous character in the play is: Richard. Richard III outclasses many of Shakespeare’s greatest heroes for intelligence and courage.

Hence the riddle: Why does the brilliant, daring hunchback disturb the peace like he does?

To explain it by his “ambition” only begs the question. Yes, in Henry VI, Part Three, he declared:

…since this earth affords no joy to me,
But to command, to cheque, to o’erbear such
As are of better person than myself,
I’ll make my heaven to dream upon the crown,
And, whiles I live, to account this world but hell,
Until my mis-shaped trunk that bears this head
Be round impaled with a glorious crown.

But he has no particular designs upon the use of royal power. He does not dream of regal exploits. Rather, he dreams solely of winning the crown by his superlative talent to deceive…

Why, I can smile, and murder whiles I smile,
And cry ‘Content’ to that which grieves my heart,
And wet my cheeks with artificial tears,
And frame my face to all occasions.
I’ll drown more sailors than the mermaid shall;
I’ll slay more gazers than the basilisk;
I’ll play the orator as well as Nestor,
Deceive more slily than Ulysses could,
And, like a Sinon, take another Troy.
I can add colours to the chameleon,
Change shapes with Proteus for advantages,
And set the murderous Machiavel to school.
Can I do this, and cannot get a crown?
Tut, were it farther off, I’ll pluck it down.

Act III, Scene vii of Richard III presents what may be the most bitterly ironic farce in the history of drama: Richard poses as a pious retreatant in the company of bishops. His accomplice Buckingham leads the Mayor of London and other grave citizens into the courtyard. Buckingham begs the prayerful, ‘virtuous’ Duke to assume the throne in order to stave off the chaos of an ungoverned state. Richard glibly protests. But he finally gives in–to the elation of the besnookered citizens!

Can we explain the chaos of destruction that Richard visits upon the realm by this: His is a genius that wants employment. Bored brilliance and strength of will menace the world like no other force of evil.

Shakespeare’s Early Histories

Rivals of his later masterpieces? No. But the “first tetralogy” about the War of the Roses swims with scenes of consummate badassery and characters that make Mr. T. look like Mr. Rogers.

The most remorseless b–slapper of them all?

Not the vengeful Earl of Warwick, who instantly transformed himself from Edward IV’s ambassador to the champion of Edward’s foes, just because the king embarrassed him in front of the French court.

Richard III, who slew his in-laws, his brother, his nephews, his two best friends, and his wife? No…

…Queen Margaret of Anjou takes the prize for steely fifteenth-century malice. (She slung the bitter imprecation we recently recalled.)

Check her out in Act I, Scene 4 of Henry VI, Part Three. She reduces the Duke of York, pretender to her husband’s throne, to tears. Margaret’s henchman Clifford murdered York’s youngest son–just a little boy–in the previous scene. Margaret has offered York a napkin to dry his tears, a napkin drenched in his own son’s blood!

Also: admire the young Theoden’s (Bernard Hill) skill. He could really act, when he had lines to say that were a little less silly than the Two Towers and Return of the King screenplays…

God is Great, Beer is

…good, people are crazy.

It turns out that the world-famous Martinsville Chair is too big even for me. (But I appreciate the gesture.)

…Will I root against the Hoyas tomorrow night, even though they face-off against the school which sits directly across the street from the cathedra of Bishop Francis Xavier DiLorenzo?

No comment.

…Has someone ever rubbed you the wrong way?

Did you find yourself casting about for a fitting imprecation? At a loss for words?

I think I may have discovered the most eloquent string of insults ever spewed.

In William Shakespeare’s Richard III, the deposed queen Margaret excoriates the evil Duke who murdered her son with these words:

…stay, dog, for thou shalt hear me.
If heaven have any grievous plague in store
Exceeding those that I can wish upon thee,
O, let them keep it till thy sins be ripe,
And then hurl down their indignation
On thee, the troubler of the poor world’s peace!
The worm of conscience still begnaw thy soul!
Thy friends suspect for traitors while thou livest,
And take deep traitors for thy dearest friends!
No sleep close up that deadly eye of thine,
Unless it be whilst some tormenting dream
Affrights thee with a hell of ugly devils!
Thou elvish-mark’d, abortive, rooting hog!
Thou that wast seal’d in thy nativity
The slave of nature and the son of hell!
Thou slander of thy mother’s heavy womb!
Thou loathed issue of thy father’s loins!
Thou rag of honour! (Act I, scene 3)

N.B. Just providing this as a public service. Use with discretion.

Not convinced that this is the most blistering string of insults the language has ever produced? Please submit other nominations.