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Thoughts on “Henry VI, Part I” by William Shakespeare

This was my first time reading this play. Honestly, I shied away from the histories in the past, and tended to focus on the comedies and tragedies. I guess some part of me felt they might not be as enjoyable. But the truth is, this is a very enjoyable play and much more interesting than I expected.

The play is steeped in politics. It is set during the English battles with the French, where Joan la Pucelle (Joan of Arc) demonstrated her force on the field. It also explores the political strife that led to the War of the Roses. So there is a lot going on, but in spite of that, it is pretty easy to follow.

There is speculation that Shakespeare may have collaborated with Christopher Marlowe and Thomas Nashe on the writing of this play.

Some regard Henry VI, Part 1 as the weakest of Shakespeare’s plays, and along with Titus Andronicus, it is generally considered one of the strongest candidates for evidence that Shakespeare collaborated with other dramatists early in his career.

(Source: Wikipedia)

Personally, I feel this play is way better that Titus Andronicus, but that’s just my opinion. That said, there are a few passages of interest that I want to share.

Charles: Then come, o’ God’s name; I fear no woman.

Joan la Pucelle: And while I live, I’ll ne’er fly from a man.

(Act I, scene ii)

What I love about these two lines is that they succinctly sum up the patriarchy mentality, and the rejection of that paradigm. As king of France, Charles embodies the idea of male dominance. But Joan is the feminist archetype. She rejects this male-dominance idea completely, and asserts that she will never allow herself to be subservient to someone strictly based upon gender. Not surprising, men of power view strong women as a threat, labeling them as witches and servants of evil.

Here, here she comes. I’ll have a bout with thee;
Devil or devil’s dam, I’ll conjure thee:
Blood will I draw on thee, thou art a witch,
And straightway give thy soul to him thou servest.

(Act I, scene v)

While factionalism in politics seems extremely pronounced these days, Shakespeare reminds us that politics have always been contentious and factional.

Good Lord, what madness rules in brainsick men,
When for so slight and frivolous a cause
Such factious emulations shall arise!
Good cousins both, of York and Somerset,
Quiet yourselves, I pray, and be at peace.

(Act IV, scene i)

As I look around me, I notice that we are living in a fear culture. The news media provides a steady stream of “what if” scenarios and opinions intended to increase your fear and keep you coming back to the channel or website. This is having a terrible effect on society, as well as on individuals. And as Shakespeare points out in this play, fear is one of the worst of human emotions.

Of all base passions, fear is the most accursed.

(Act V, scene ii)

And the last quote I want to share concerns marriage.

A dower, my lords! disgrace not so your king,
That he should be so abject, base and poor,
To choose for wealth and not for perfect love.
Henry is able to enrich his queen
And not seek a queen to make him rich:
So worthless peasants bargain for their wives,
As market-men for oxen, sheep, or horse.
Marriage is a matter of more worth
Than to be dealt in by attorneyship;
Not whom we will, but whom his grace affects,
Must be companion of his nuptial bed:
And therefore, lords, since he affects her most,
It most of all these reasons bindeth us,
In our opinions she should be preferr’d.
For what is wedlock forced but a hell,
An age of discord and continual strife?

(Act V, scene v)

I love this quote because it extols the importance of love when it comes to matrimony. It is clearly a romantic view that puts the focus on the compatibility between two people, as opposed to the financial or political advantages that might be gained from an arranged marriage.

While I agree that this is not Shakespeare’s greatest play, it is still good and worth reading. If for nothing else, it provides a glimpse into the writing of a young Shakespeare, as he was developing his skills as a wordsmith.

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Thoughts on “Troilus and Cressida” by William Shakespeare

This is a very strange play, and I can understand why it is categorized as one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays.” I found it difficult to connect with any one character, and it was not clear who the tragic hero was. Hector dies, but he was not nearly as prideful as Achilles. Only thing close to a tragic flaw that Hector has is he refused to listen to the women who prophesized that something bad would happen to him if he went to fight. Troilus is betrayed by Cressida who gives herself to Diomedes, but they all live. Patroclus dies, but it is almost like a sidenote. Anyway, in spite of all the structural issues, there are some interesting themes that are worth considering.

There is some debate in the play about the contrast between fortune and free will. Early in the play, Nestor embraces the concept of free will over fortune.

In the reproof of chance
Lies the true proof of men: the sea being smooth,
How many shallow bauble boats dare sail
Upon her patient breast, making their way
With those of nobler bulk!
But let the ruffian Boreas once enrage
The gentle Thetis, and anon behold
The strong-ribb’d bark through liquid mountains cut,
Bounding between the two moist elements,
Like Perseus’ horse: where’s then the saucy boat
Whose weak untimber’d sides but even now
Co-rivall’d greatness? Either to harbour fled,
Or made a toast for Neptune. Even so
Doth valour’s show and valour’s worth divide
In storms of fortune; for in her ray and brightness
The herd hath more annoyance by the breeze
Than by the tiger; but when the splitting wind
Makes flexible the knees of knotted oaks,
And flies fled under shade, why, then the thing of courage
As roused with rage with rage doth sympathize,
And with an accent tuned in selfsame key
Retorts to chiding fortune.

(Act I: scene iii)

In contrast, Ulysses asserts that fortune plays an important role in human events.

The heavens themselves, the planets and this centre
Observe degree, priority and place,
Insisture, course, proportion, season, form,
Office and custom, in all line of order;
And therefore is the glorious planet Sol
In noble eminence enthroned and sphered
Amidst the other; whose medicinable eye
Corrects the ill aspects of planets evil,
And posts, like the commandment of a king,
Sans cheque to good and bad: but when the planets
In evil mixture to disorder wander,
What plagues and what portents! what mutiny!
What raging of the sea! shaking of earth!
Commotion in the winds! frights, changes, horrors,
Divert and crack, rend and deracinate
The unity and married calm of states
Quite from their fixure! O, when degree is shaked,
Which is the ladder to all high designs,
Then enterprise is sick!

(Act I: scene iii)

Pride seems to be another of the key themes in this play, and Achilles is the embodiment of pride. At one point, Ajax and Agamemnon discuss the pride of Achilles, and how it feeds upon itself.

Ajax: Why should a man be proud? How doth pride grow? I know not what pride is.

Agamemnon: Your mind is the clearer, Ajax, and your virtues the fairer. He that is proud eats up himself: pride is his own glass, his own trumpet, his own chronicle; and whatever praises itself but in the deed, devours the deed in the praise.

Ajax: I do hate a proud man, as I hate the engendering of toads.

(Act II: scene iii)

In Act V, we see a very bleak assessment of humanity. Thersites comes to the conclusion that men are motivated by two things: war and sex. It is almost a premonition of Freud’s concept of eros and thanatos, that sex and death are the primary drives in human nature.

Lechery, lechery! Still wars and lechery! Nothing else holds fashion. A burning devil take them.

(Act V: scene ii)

This is not my favorite Shakespeare play, but it is not the worst either, in my opinion. While there are some obvious problems with the play, there is enough thought-provoking material there to warrant a read. I am curious, though, whether it would come across better when performed on stage. I will have to keep an eye out for a stage production, and then see for myself.

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“Pasta Cunegonda” – How Umberto Eco Dealt with a Troll

Umberto Eco

In this short essay included in Turning Back the Clock: Hot Wars and Media Populism, Eco tells the tale of how he had written an article with some pragmatic suggestions on how to take action against the right-wing government controlled media. The article spawned a hateful response from someone who sent Eco a copy of a book that Eco had written, with the word “Shit” written in big red letters across every other page. Rather than succumbing to anger, Eco looked at the event with his usual wit and insight.

I tried to understand the mind and the walk of life of my correspondent. For the psychology, there’s no need of a psychoanalytic session, and I leave it to the reader to draw conclusions. As for the man’s social background, I wonder if he already had the book at home, if he bought it specially, or if he stole it. If he already had the book at home, even if it belonged to his children, he must be a person of some status, which makes the business all the more interesting. If he stole it, theft too can be a form of political struggle, but the people who steal books were usually on the far left, and I would say that this isn’t the case here. Which leaves us with the possibility that he bought it, and if he did, then he spent a certain amount, plus the cost of mailing, in order to give himself this satisfaction. He must have calculated that he wasn’t going to contribute to my personal well-being, given the paltry percentage authors receive on paperbacks, but he didn’t consider the big check I will receive for this article.

(Turning Back the Clock: pp 193 – 4)

In my years of blogging, I have gotten several trollish remarks. After my initial indignation, I did my best to just let them go. But in this age of abundant internet trolling, Eco provides some great advice. There will always be people who disagree with you and feel emboldened to bolster their beliefs by putting you down. The best way to deal with them is with a sense of humor and a touch of empathy. And, if you can use it as inspiration for something creative, then by all means, do so!

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“Hardwiring Happiness” by Rick Hanson, Ph.D.

So the problem that I have with the majority of self-help books is that they have a great idea that can be covered in a well-fleshed-out article, but they stretch it out with redundant examples to fill up the requisite number of pages needed to publish a book. Hardwiring Happiness definitely falls into this category. It is essentially a handbook on how to reprogram the neural pathways in the brain to create a more positive default response to stimuli. It’s a great idea and something I feel many people can benefit from, especially in our toxic fear-based society. I would have just preferred the Reader’s Digest version.

Hanson’s concept of hardwiring happiness is based upon the science behind neuroplasticity.

All mental activity—sights and sounds, thoughts and feelings, conscious and unconscious processes—is based on underlying neural activity. Much mental and therefore neural activity flows through the brain like ripples on a river, with no lasting effects on the channel. But intense, prolonged, or repeated mental/neural activity—especially if it is conscious—will leave an enduring imprint in neural structure, like surging current reshaping a riverbed. As they say in neuroscience: Neurons that fire together wire together. Mental states become neural traits. Day after day, your mind is building your brain.

(p. 10)

Hanson’s approach is based on a four-step principle which forms the acronym HEAL:

  1. Have a positive experience.

  2. Enrich it.

  3. Absorb it.

  4. Link positive and negative material.

(p. 60)

This approach reminded me a lot of EMDR, a type of therapy used to deal with issues of trauma (I can attest to the efficacy of this treatment). Positive experiences are embedded in the memory and strengthened. These positive mental states are then used to weaken the negative states associated with the trauma. HEAL is similar to EMDR, but used to promote general well-being and not intended to self-treat in situations where a trained therapist is needed.

As Hanson empathizes in this book, it’s important to address the brain’s negativity bias, where importance is placed on the negative instead of the positive (how our brains evolved in order to survive during harder times). But as is pointed out in the book, prolonged focus on the negative has lasting repercussions.

But when unpleasant experiences become negative material stored in your brain, that’s not good. Negative material has negative consequences. It darkens your mood, increases anxiety and irritability, and gives you a background sense of falling short, of inadequacy. This material contains painful beliefs like “no one would want me.” The desires and inclinations in it take you to the bad places. It can numb and muzzle you. Or it can make you overreact to others, which can create vicious cycles of negativity between you and them. Negative material impacts your body, wears down long-term mental and physical health, and can potentially shorten your life span.

(p. 126)

In an age where news and social media provide a constant stream that feeds the brain’s negativity bias, Hanson’s book offers some practical ways to deal with this. While it could have been shorter, the book is still worth reading for the simple steps provided for improving your mental well-being.

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Witchblade #02

It’s amazing what your mind can accept. Even if the toll of that acceptance will inevitably come due.

This quote from the second installment of the new Witchblade series really resonated with me. As someone who meditates and reads a fair amount of spiritual writings, I understand the importance of acceptance as a spiritual value. But I suppose there can be a dark side to acceptance, especially in cases of abuse where acceptance might lead to complacency and inaction. Too often people accept their suffering and come to see it as normal, and then fail to summon the courage necessary to make positive changes in their lives. I suppose that is why acceptance is only part of the Serenity Prayer. Acceptance must always be balanced with courage.

Serenity Prayer:

God, grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change
The courage to change the things I can
And the wisdom to know the difference.

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Witchblade #01: Feminist Reboot of Mystical Saga

I was a fan of the original Witchblade comic, and have a box full of earlier issues. While I loved the mythology and the mystical elements of the saga, I confess that the sexualized representations of women were sometimes difficult for me. Which is why when my friend Darrin at the comic store showed me the new re-imagined Witchblade, written and illustrated by women, I was intrigued and bought the first issue.

This first issue faces the daunting task of starting a new story built upon a series that embodies 185 issues over its 20-year history. We are introduced to Alex Underwood, the new wielder of the gauntlet, who is unaware of what she has and the power the artifact contains. She grapples with doubts regarding her sanity as she begins the symbiotic merging of her consciousness and being with the mystical bracelet.

At the end of the issue is an interview with writer Caitlin Kittredge and artist Roberta Ingranata. When asked how the new artistic perspective differs from the original story, Roberta responds:

Fewer boobs [laughs]! I think the new WITCHBLADE will have a different reading key. We have a simpler protagonist, a common woman you could meet in the street. A woman who has to fight with personal demons as much as real ones.

The female point of view, in this kind of story, helps to depict a much stronger introspective and emotional side of the character.

Caitlin elaborates on the female perspective of the story:

Female creative teams are unfortunately in the minority right now in comics, and I’m really thrilled to be half of one on this book. I’m even more pleased to be a woman writing a female-lead comic drawn by a female artist. WITCHBLADE has always been a comic, in my opinion, that has tried to present a strong heroine but didn’t have much actual input from a woman. I am definitely interested in continuing to portray a heroine who is strong but human, and a fully fleshed person with both good and bad sides because I feel that’s the greatest service I can do as a writer—delve beneath “strong female character” into the actual person at the core of the new WITCHBLADE.

While it seems strange to read Witchblade without Sara Pezzini, I am curious to see where this new tale goes. So far, I am greatly encouraged and look forward to what this new chapter in the saga has to offer.

Feel free to share your thoughts below. Cheers!

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“A Dream” by Edgar Allan Poe: The Contrast of Light and Dark

Rembrandt

In visions of the dark night
I have dreamed of joy departed—
But a waking dream of life and light
Hath left me broken-hearted.

Ah! what is not a dream by day
To him whose eyes are cast
On things around him with a ray
Turned back upon the past?

That holy dream—that holy dream,
While all the world were chiding,
Hath cheered me as a lovely beam
A lonely spirit guiding.

What though that light, thro’ storm and night,
So trembled from afar—
What could there be more purely bright
In Truth’s day-star?

This is a poem of contrasts and opposites, most prominently the contrast of light and dark. But there are also contrasts between sleep and awakening, past and future, and happiness and sorrow. And while there is contrast, there is also balance. Even the fact that the poem is divided into four stanzas of four lines each generates a sense of balance, harmony, and stability. So this balance of opposites is the key to this poem, in my opinion.

In the final line of the poem, Poe mentions Truth—the big Truth with a capital T. This is the proverbial Holy Grail that philosophers, poets, and artists have sought after for millennia. Poe is asserting that the Truth lies somewhere in that nebulous space between the two opposites, between the darkness and the light. And the only way that one can glimpse that space where Truth hides is to embrace both the light and the dark and bring them into balance. Think of the Yin/Yang symbol. It is a balance of light and dark, of positive and negative. Both are needed in equal parts to achieve wholeness.

As we move into the dark period of the yearly cycle, we must be sure we maintain a balance of light.

Thanks for stopping by, and have a blessed day.

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