Happy Mother’s Day

Elizabeth Taylor Richard Burton
Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton

In Act IV of William Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, Petruchio insists that his new wife Katherina submit her mind to his.

In mid-afternoon, Petruchio proclaims that it’s actually 7:00am. He demands that Katherina concede this. “It shall be what o’clock I say it is!”

Petruchio’s friend Hortensio comments: “Why, so this gallant will command the sun.”

Let’s imagine a courtroom scene. The members of the jury file into the box, having completed their deliberations.

The judge asks the foreman, “Have you reached a verdict?”

“Yes, Your Honor. We find the defendant not guilty!”

So the judge says to the accused: “Very well. You will retain the title of ‘free man.’ Your prison uniform will read ‘free man’ across the back of the shirt. Now, bailiff, cuff him, and take him to San Quentin.”

Yesterday, locksmiths under the direction of the pastor of a neighboring parish came to Rocky Mount and Martinsville. They locked me out of both churches, and one of the two residences, in our parish cluster.

This past Wednesday I spoke with Father Kevin. I told him that I would concede to him the duties of my office. (Since I cannot perform them, having been suspended from ministry by Bishop Knestout.)

I also told Father Kevin that I intended to continue my normal routine of residing in both parishes for part of each week. If nothing else, I could at least make sure than any maintenance problems at the houses get solved, while I work on my Shakespeare book and wait for this nightmare to end.

(For instance, the basement of the house in Rocky Mount can flood very easily. The storm drain outside the basement door tends to get clogged with fallen leaves. I sweep the area out every couple weeks.)

As it happened yesterday, only good fortune kept me from getting locked out completely. I stood in the doorway when the locksmith came to the little house in Martinsville. He did not proceed with the “re-keying” for one reason. I happened to be there.

St Andrew
Church of St. Andrew, Roanoke, Va.

I asked if he would return today or tomorrow. He said he didn’t know. He was in the employ of the facilities manager of St. Andrew’s. He would follow Wayne’s orders.

So I live now with the daily fear that I will leave the premises to take care of something–like do some exercise, for example–and return to find that my key doesn’t work anymore. (Don’t fret, however, dear reader. I have a plan for that possible calamity. I’m not going to wander homeless in the streets.)

The lock changing yesterday is a crime that cries to heaven for vengeance.

As I said, if I had been in one place instead of another early yesterday afternoon, I would now be completely dependent on the kindness of individuals for the thing that Holy Mother Church owes me by Her solemn commitment: a roof over my head in the parishes where I am the lawful pastor.

May God have mercy on everyone involved in changing the locks. As we read in Scripture: The Lord’s justice will not be mocked.

Like most parish priests who have labored for years to till the soil, so to speak, I think of these parishes here as rose gardens. Yesterday the diocese showed up to turn the soil for springtime. With a bulldozer.

It does not have to be this way.

On November 21, 2019, I asked Bishop Knestout to go over with me the blog posts I had written which he did not like. So that I could understand his objections and make corrections. I made the same request at a second meeting on February 5, 2020. On neither occasion did he consent to do so.

On December 14, 2019, I wrote to His Excellency, proposing the names of five brother priests of the diocese, to whom I would submit as censors for my weblog. I never got a response to this proposal.

In February of this year, an experienced industrial mediator in one of the parishes proposed to both myself and the bishop that he serve as a local censor for my blog, reviewing all posts prior to publication. I agreed to submit to this. The bishop declined.

The gentleman made the same offer again in March. I agreed again. The bishop declined again.

As far as I am concerned, all of these offers remain on the table. I want only good communication, compromise, peace, and a return to some semblance of our normal parish life here. This is what I hope and pray for.

The bishop made this controversy a matter of public debate by writing to the parishioners on March 19. My dear canon lawyer and I only appealed to the Vatican after all our attempts at compromise got nowhere. We had written to the bishop in late March, asking for a clarification of the record. We got no response.

For my part, I am ready and willing to go back to the state of affairs as they stood on November 21 of last year. Then try to work constructively from there. I said this to the bishop in person on February 5.

I say it again now. We can start over. It doesn’t have to be this way. With heaven looking down in sorrow and disgust.

King Lear and Paschal Triduum 2020


In the third act of William Shakespeare’s King Lear, the protagonist loses his mind almost completely. But he retains his exquisite sense of justice.

Lear speaks to the storm clouds and winds, and he pardons them for buffeting him. Then his friends hide him in a little room in a barn. Lear proceeds to set up an imaginary courtroom. He arraigns his back-stabbing daughters for their crimes. He speaks with pure justice–to a wooden stool and a farm dog.

…I took a walk in the woods the other day. Like many of us, I found myself in a Lear-like frame of mind. I came upon an adversary. Coronavirus Holy Week, 2020, personified.

Looked like this…

rock face in the woods

I began my accusations:

How dare you? Prohibit the annual Holy-Week gathering of us priests, for the renewal of our ordination promises?

I went on:

What gives you the right to keep the faithful people at home, with no one’s foot to wash in front of the altar at church, on Holy Thursday night?

And more:

Wait. We will have no Easter fire?! No procession with candles? What maim’d rites!

Then I grew most-grave, for the final accusation:

Iniquitous monster, Coronavirus Holy Week 2020, you will thwart the catechumens and candidates from receiving the Sacraments of Christian Initiation at the Easter Vigil?

He offered no defense. Did not even deny the charges. So I began to stone the offender. But then I recognized the cold fact that I was stoning a rock. Let’s face it: we all must resign ourselves to the mystery of Providence.

Lear put it like this, to the storm that rained down upon him:

Let fall your horrible pleasure. Here I stand, your slave.

Macbeth in Canada

Stratford Shakespeare bust
with a bust of the Bard

Few things satisfy a person like Macbeth, performed without gimmicks, without extensive script-cuts.  Without nonsense.  Just the subtle workings of ambition, of manipulation, and of craven hopelessness.  Then the revenge of honesty and the restoration of order.  With good witch scenes in the middle.

Tomorrow, we get to see As You Like It.

Thank you, dear people of St. Joseph’s in Martinsville, who gave us this trip!

Can’t come to Canada without reading Francis Parkman.  In Montcalm and Wolfe, Parkman formulates a fascinating thesis:  What we call the French and Indian War–the part of the European Seven Years War fought in the American colonies–marks the decisive turning point in modern history.  The hegemony of medieval authoritarianism–incarnated in the French colonial system–got crushed, unleashing the forces of the English Enlightenment, which proceeded to rule the world.

Parkman wrote before our 20th-century sensibilities about the native tribes in America.  He knew how much closer the French got to the Indians than the English ever did.  Frenchmen married Indian women.  And of course the French hoped to share their religion with the Indians.  But Parkman did not regard the French interaction with the Indians as inherently virtuous, as we sons and daughters of latter times might regard it.  (The North-American Jesuit martyrs are among my most-beloved heroes, so I certainly regard the French interaction with the natives as amazingly virtuous!)

Anyway, Parkman’s thesis begs the question:  Where does the war between the Roman Church and the Enlightenment stand now?  In the 1880’s, Parkman saw a decisive victory achieved in 1763.  But aren’t we “Romish zealots” still standing and fighting?  We Romish zealots may yet decide the course of the 21st century.

Macbeth Movie

Fassbender Macbeth

Back in 1990, Mel Gibson made a Hamlet movie. Watching it gave you this sense: No one involved in making this movie really cares about what the words mean.

Watching Michael Fassbender’s Macbeth movie makes you wonder: Does anyone care what words mean anymore? For most of the movie, actually, the actors don’t even bother talking. (So maybe they should have made a movie version of a play by a less-talented playwright?)

Shakespeare’s Macbeth has certain crucial narrative elements, which make it interesting. One of them is that Macbeth murders Duncan secretly. Lady Macbeth said that “had he not resembled my father as he slept, I had done’t.” The new thane of Cawdor, in a haze of ambition stirred up by his wife’s malice, secretly kills his fatherly benefactor. Off stage.

All the dramatic tension in the first part of the play turns on the secrecy of this murder. The audience simultaneously occupies two worlds: The dark, secret world in which the heath witches have promised Macbeth the kingdom, where Lady Macbeth swears that

The raven himself is hoarse
That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan
Under my battlements. (I.v)

The audience also occupies the outer world of the Scottish court, where Duncan has named his son Malcolm his heir. That Banquo, like the audience, has access to both these worlds–that he knows the secret of the witches–makes him dangerous to Macbeth.

In Fassbender’s nightmare of a movie, there are no secrets. Nothing hidden that awaits revelation. Malcolm suddenly stands at the bedside of his murdered father, catching Macbeth literally red-handed.

Where could the drama of the play go from there? Short answer: Nowhere, fast.

All the dramatic tension of the second part of the play turns on the fact that Macbeth has slipped deeper into malice even than his wife. He keeps secrets from her. Eventually the Lady’s conscience takes vengeance on her, while her husband just keeps piling up secret homicides.

But, like I said, Fassbender’s Macbeth has no secrets. So, in the movie, Macbeth publicly burns the wife and children of Fife at the stake. By this point, though, we have long since given up on any of this movie making any sense.

Now, Shakespeare has an interlude at the end of Act IV of his script, which even self-respecting Shakespeare troupes often cut. Macduff and Malcolm, exiled in England, debate the latter’s worthiness to return and seek the Scottish throne.

Malcolm, trying to gauge Macduff’s motives in coming to England, paints himself as a worse villain even than Macbeth. Macduff stands ready to excuse royal lust and avarice, within limits. Then Malcolm pushes Macduff to the breaking point: I have no piety or love of justice, either! Macduff explodes with anger at the idea that no worthy king for Scotland can be found.

Malcolm then ends the charade and explains how he only intended to test Macduff. Malcom’s soul, in fact, lives free of lust and avarice. He has his father Duncan’s virtues.

In other words: Good and evil matter. Scotland may have a murderous, usurping tyrant for the moment. But chaos does not rule. Outside the bewitched interior world of Macbeth and his wife, good order and honesty continue.

When Burnham Wood comes to Dunsinane, the green leaves of the tree branches used as cover by the approaching army serve as an insignia of goodness and justice. Macbeth’s is a world of burning sulphur. But outside his twisted, compromised mind, the sun shines.

In Fassbender’s movie, Burnham Wood comes to Dunsinane as burning ash. There is no good world in this movie. Which makes the breathless, relentless evil that fills it oppressively boring.

Macbeth, the play, offers timeless human insight. Macbeth, the movie, pummels the audience to no purpose. Even if I myself fell into the depths of malice into which Macbeth falls, I would not wish the watching of Fassbender’s Macbeth on my worst enemy.

Tennant Hamlet

The DVD version of the 2008 Royal-Shakespeare-Company Hamlet has found its way to the local public library, allowing me to return again to my favorite subject: Don’t cut lines from Hamlet!

I have heard David Tennant play a fun Macbeth porter and an endearing Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet, not to mention a vivacious Launcelot Gobbo in Merchant of Venice and a crushingly pathetic Edgar in King Lear. (He enacted all these for Arkangel Shakespeare, way before he became Dr. Who.)

But this 2008 Hamlet, for all its earnestness, will go down in history as the version in which they trimmed lines from “To Be or Not To Be…” Party foul, people.

First, however: The unforgettable and amazing thing about RSC 2008 Hamlet: Patrick Stewart’s bad-ss Claudius.

Patrick Stewart Claudius Hamlet

Scary, as in scary frightening and scary good. Claudius’ speech in III.iii, when he tries to pray, but cannot bring himself to renounce his dishonest gains; “O my offense is rank, it smells to heaven” (at 1:21, below)–as heartbreaking a literary artifact as ink has ever left behind for us. Stewart utterly nails it. You wish he could repent. But you relish that, in fact, he cannot.

Indeed, a great deal of Hamlet‘s dramatic energy comes from the fundamentally evil sexual tension between Claudius and Gertrude. The more decisive the acting in this area, the greater the energy of the performance as a whole, since everything revolves around Claudius’ and Gertrude’s sketchy marriage.

In the best movie ever made, Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet, Derek Jacobi convinces us that Claudius follows after Gertrude like a poor puppy who cannot resist Julie Christie’s ferocious allure. For Jacobi’s Claudius, wearing the crown seems only an undesirable corollary to his original scheme. He could just as soon do without being king. He would have killed his brother in cold blood solely to get the queen for a wife.

In 2008 RSC, though, Stewart’s dominant Claudius preys on Penny Downie’s inability to deal with all her ambivalences. This approach, though quite satisfying in many respects, has one significant problem: it does not resonate with inconvenient lines in the script. Stewart’s Claudius would make it hard for us to believe the “Hyperion-to-a-satyr” contrast between the dead king and Claudius which Hamlet draws in I.ii. (Especially since Stewart also plays the Ghost in this production.) Problem solved, though: they cut that line.

The two-hour Hamlet I saw in Staunton in April simply did not make sense as a whole, so much of the script had gone unsaid. By the time this three-hour RSC production ends, it looks a lot like Hamlet. (Though they cut the last exchange! We never see young Fortinbras!)

The problem is, in this Hamlet many of the most-important speeches don’t make sense. Editing has eviscerated them of crucial sentences. How can we have “To be or not to be..” without a “bare bodkin?” Please.

Another problem: Forgive me for generalizing, but there are two kinds of Hamlets. Skinny adolescent ones and manly ones. Shakespeare wrote a manly Hamlet. Never crossed Shakespeare’s mind to doubt that ghosts can and do appear to people. Hamlet, as written by Shakespeare, has no Oedipus Complex. He simply has to deal with what a ghost has told him. Things like that can happen, after people get murdered.

The 20th century gave us skinny adolescent Hamlets with complexes. David Tennant gives us a 20th-century Hamlet.

I thought we had moved on.

Summary: If you take the trouble to watch this RSC 2008 Hamlet on DVD, you will wish, every 1-2 minutes (except when Claudius is speaking), that you were watching Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet instead.

Sad Twelfth Night

TWELFTH NIGHT, Ben Kingsley, 1996, (c) Fine Line

One summer at the beach, we read Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night together as a family.

From the early scene in which Toby Belch extols Sir Andrew Aguecheek’s attractions as a suitor for a young lady, insisting that Sir Andrew

“’s as tall a man as any’s in Illyria…
…he plays o’ the
viol-de-gamboys, and speaks three or four languages
word for word without book, and hath all the good
gifts of nature”

my brother and I could not stop laughing. Sir Toby had us at ‘viol-de-gamboys.’

Ever since that summer, I have thought of Twelfth Night as primarily hilarious and only secondarily wistful. The downstairs comedy steals the show from the implausible romances that unfold upstairs. Aguecheek possesses as much vivid buffoonery as any character in the Bard’s oeuvre. Eg:

O knight thou lackest a cup of canary: when did I
see thee so put down?

Never in your life, I think; unless you see canary
put me down. Methinks sometimes I have no more wit
than a Christian or an ordinary man has: but I am a
great eater of beef and I believe that does harm to my wit.

No question.

An I thought that, I’ld forswear it. I’ll ride home
to-morrow, Sir Toby.

Pourquoi, my dear knight?

What is ‘Pourquoi’? do or not do? I would I had
bestowed that time in the tongues that I have in
fencing, dancing and bear-baiting: O, had I but
followed the arts!

Now, the play sounds the wistful note, to be sure. And the Clown (called Feste) sings anthems of heartache with good reason. A thoroughly sympathetic young woman, disguised as a man, falls hopelessly in love with a man who pines after a woman who has foolishly fallen for the woman disguised as a man. Plenty of ‘matter for a May morning,’ as one of the downstairs crowd puts it—if the matter you seek is nonsensical lovesickness.

Feste smiles through it all, amused by the lovers’ foibles. Eg:

Yet you will be hanged for being so long absent; or,
to be turned away, is not that as good as a hanging to you?

Many a good hanging prevents a bad marriage; and,
for turning away, let summer bear it out.

To the man in the middle of the bizarre love triangle, who is given to whining, Feste says:

Now, the melancholy god protect thee; and the
tailor make thy doublet of changeable taffeta, for
thy mind is a very opal. I would have men of such
constancy put to sea, that their business might be
every thing and their intent every where; for that’s
it that always makes a good voyage of nothing. Farewell.

And this conversation:

Thy reason, man?

Troth, sir, I can yield you none without words; and
words are grown so false, I am loath to prove
reason with them.

I warrant thou art a merry fellow and carest for nothing.

Not so, sir, I do care for something; but in my
conscience, sir, I do not care for you: if that be
to care for nothing, sir, I would it would make you invisible.

Art not thou the Lady Olivia’s fool?

No, indeed, sir; the Lady Olivia has no folly: she
will keep no fool, sir, till she be married; and
fools are as like husbands as pilchards are to
herrings; the husband’s the bigger: I am indeed not
her fool, but her corrupter of words.

I never thought Feste a matchmaker. Much less a kind of priest who somehow rises to a spiritual plane from which he can turn the conclusion of the play into a meditation on time flowing into eternity—after all the slapstick has played itself out.

Twelfth_Night-_Or_What_You_Will_FilmPosterBut: It can happen. I know I bring up a lot of oldish movies. But that’s what they have at the public library. In 1996, the lovely Helena Bonham Carter starred in a movie version of Twelfth Night, and Ben Kingsley played the Fool. By which I mean, he did not play the fool. He enacted Feste with an F. Scott Fitzgerald-esque melancholy.

I read a review of the movie that praised Kingsley’s singing. I can’t go that far. But what he undertook to do—namely, to make the clown something other than a clown, something more like a quasi-omniscient shepherd of souls—he pulled off in spades.

Sir Toby and Sir Andrew, plotting to challenge Cesario (the disguised Viola) to a duel, and then unknowingly stumbling into real fisticuffs with the twin brother—for my money, the comedy makes Twelfth Night.

But after seeing doe-eyed Ben Kingsley walk off alone up a hillside, his guitar slung over his back, while, behind him, the wedding dances begin in the manor house… Somehow the picture strikes us as utterly complete: the newlyweds happy, the priest striding in his solitude towards the dark cloud of death, like an elf-king… After seeing this movie version of Twelfth Night, I will from now on laugh at Aguecheek with a deeper appreciation of just how autumnal the loveliness of this play really is.

Henry IV and Henry V, for Fathers’ Day

Julian and Jamie Glover Henry IVKing Henry IV lamented the waywardness of his son. Prince Hal did not frequent the royal court. He did not participate in the king’s council. He had achieved no military glory.

Instead, he fraternized with heavy drinkers and pickpockets. He spent his nights in taverns. He soaked his liver in liquor with the notorious Sir John Falstaff.

In other words, the heir of Henry Bolingbroke thoroughly besmirched the honor of the title, ‘Prince of Wales.’

Meanwhile, another young Henry, Harry Hotspur, had accomplished all that Prince Hal had not. Advantageously married, valiant and victorious in many battles, righteous and ambitious (if occasionally a bit hotheaded and willful).

Early in Henry IV, Part One, by Williams Shakespeare, King Henry expresses the wish that Harry Hotspur were his son, instead of his own Prince Hal.

But then: Hotspur rises in rebellion. The turning point in the prince’s life arrives. We know that Hal has long planned to renounce his wayward life, that he has undertaken his inexplicable guttersniping for a reason, namely so that he could emerge all the brighter when the moment ripened. His father now faced a genuinely threatening rebellion. The moment had come.

If you seek an inspiring Fathers’ Day exchange, Act III, Scene 2, of Henry IV, Part One, has it. The king thoroughly indicts his son for his scandalous way of life, emphasizing especially how Hal had made himself common and familiar with everyone—except his own father…

For thou has lost thy princely privilege
With vile participation: not an eye
But is a-weary of thy common sight,
Save mine, which hath desired to see thee more;
Which now doth that I would not have it do,
Make blind itself with foolish tenderness.

Hal protests that he has not actually committed all the outrages that have been reported to the king. (We know, in fact, that, though Hal had gladly gotten drunk and laughed uproariously with roadside thieves, he himself would not steal.)

The king laments the dire political and military situation he faces with the northern rebellion. He justifiably accuses the dissolute Hal of conspiring along with Hotspur to dislodge him from the throne.

Thou that art like enough, through vassal fear,
Base inclination and the start of spleen
To fight against me under Percy’s pay,
To dog his heels and curtsy at his frowns,
To show how much thou art degenerate.

Hal responds with the best Fathers’-Day card ever:

…God forgive them that so much have sway’d
Your majesty’s good thoughts away from me!
I will redeem all this on Percy’s head
And in the closing of some glorious day
Be bold to tell you that I am your son;
When I will wear a garment all of blood
And stain my favours in a bloody mask,
Which, wash’d away, shall scour my shame with it:
And that shall be the day, whene’er it lights,
That this same child of honour and renown,
This gallant Hotspur, this all-praised knight,
And your unthought-of Harry chance to meet.
For every honour sitting on his helm,
Would they were multitudes, and on my head
My shames redoubled! for the time will come,
That I shall make this northern youth exchange
His glorious deeds for my indignities.
Percy is but my factor, good my lord,
To engross up glorious deeds on my behalf;
And I will call him to so strict account,
That he shall render every glory up,
Yea, even the slightest worship of his time,
Or I will tear the reckoning from his heart.
This, in the name of God, I promise here:
The which if He be pleased I shall perform,
I do beseech your majesty may salve
The long-grown wounds of my intemperance:
If not, the end of life cancels all bands;
And I will die a hundred thousand deaths
Ere break the smallest parcel of this vow.

Hal makes good on his word. Turns out the prince has known pretty well how to train himself as a warrior. In battle, the much-mocked Prince of Wales successfully rescues his father from certain death. Then he meets Harry Hotspur. And leaves his corpse on the field.

In the Arkangel Shakespeare recording of this play, a real father and son play King Henry and Prince Hal. Julian and Jamie Glover make Act III, Scene 2 sparkle with affection.

May all children make their fathers proud, like Prince Hal does, in the end. And may all fathers love their children with the tenderness that the stoic Henry Bollingbroke reveals in Act III, Scene 2, of Henry IV, Part One.

Hamlet & Ten Virgins

If it be now, ‘tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the readiness is all.

Hamlet says this line, just before entering into a duel with a treacherous opponent—the duel which will cost Hamlet his life.

What made him so confident and ready, even when he suspected that foul play and murder awaited him?

Hamlet’s confidence in the face of death did not stem from self-satisfaction. Quite the contrary, Hamlet is famous for tormenting himself with self-doubt. He repeatedly accuses himself of pathetic cowardice. Hamlet’s admirers, like Ophelia, had thought him the paragon of princeliness, a true Renaissance gentleman. But he searched his own soul and found confusion, indecision, and weakness.

Yet the melancholy Dane stood ready and peaceful when doom befell him. Where did his readiness come from? From his most conspicuous quality: Zeal for the truth consumed him. Hamlet never lived by self-serving delusions. He did not fear death, because he regarded it as the inevitable fact that it is.

[Click HERE to read the parable of the ten virgins.]

The foolish virgins brought no oil with them. They had not bothered to consider their situation. They lived in a fantasy world where oil lamps burn forever and never run out. They accepted the invitation to the wedding without thinking what the night could really be like. Their heads were filled with conceits about pretty dresses, and wine flowing, and music.

But sometimes bridegrooms are long delayed. Camels can go lame; roads can be washed out by floods; enemies can attack. Pretty fantasies from bridal catalogues can get scotched by the inconveniences of real life.

The wise virgins were ready because the truth interested them. They anticipated that they could be in for a long night. “My lamp only holds so much oil. I had better bring a flask with some extra. If I don’t need the extra oil tonight, I will burn it when I have to stay up to clean the table linen tomorrow night.”

Reality may not be glamorous. But it’s all we’ve got.

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.