Tag Archives: France

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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“A Dream of Death” by William Butler Yeats

Cypresses: Vincent van Gogh

Cypresses: Vincent van Gogh

I dreamed that one had died in a strange place
Near no accustomed hand,
And they had nailed the boards above her face,
The peasants of that land,
Wondering to lay her in that solitude,
And raised above her mound
A cross they had made out of two bits of wood,
And planted cypress round;
And left her to the indifferent stars above
Until I carved these words:
She was more beautiful than thy first love,
But now lies under boards.

I read this poem twice this morning and had a good sense of the meaning, but felt that I might be missing some historical context. So I did a little research (the internet is an amazing resource) and learned that Yeats composed this poem for Maude Gonne, who had taken a trip to France for health reasons. Clearly, he was expressing concern about her being so far away from home while ill and afraid of what might happen to her in the unfortunate event that she passed away.

What struck me about this poem was the big-picture theme about death and remembrance. Most people who have lived and died are completely forgotten, and this is a sobering thought. We all like to think of our lives as being meaningful, and I do believe that everyone’s life has purpose in the grand scheme, but that does not mean that individual lives are remembered long past death. And I think this is what Yeats was getting at in this poem. His words in this poem ensure that the memory of Gonne would continue after her death, that she would not become just a nameless marker somewhere.

Another thing that is worth mentioning is the symbolism of the cypress trees. In Yeats’ vision, he sees cypress trees planted around Maude’s burial mound. The tree is an ancient symbol of mourning and possesses mystical properties, particularly in regard to ushering the soul from this world to the next realm.

The poet Ovid, who wrote during the reign of Augustus, records the best-known myth that explains the association of the cypress with grief. The handsome boy Cyparissus, a favorite of Apollo, accidentally killed a beloved tame stag. His grief and remorse were so inconsolable that he asked to weep forever. He was transformed into cupressus sempervirens, with the tree’s sap as his tears. In another version of the story, it was the woodland god Silvanus who was the divine companion of Cyparissus and who accidentally killed the stag. When the boy was consumed by grief, Silvanus turned him into a tree, and thereafter carried a branch of cypress as a symbol of mourning.

In Greek mythology, besides Cyparissus, the cypress is also associated with Artemis and Hecate, a goddess of magic, crossroads and the underworld. Ancient Roman funerary rites used it extensively.

(Source: Wikipedia)

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The Paris Attacks: Was the Date Symbolic?

FrenchFlag

I generally try to focus my blog posts on books, poems, stories, and comics, but since the bulk of my reading over the past 10 hours has focused on the tragic events in Paris, I suppose I should share my thoughts.

First off, my thoughts and prayers are with the people of France, the victims, and their families. It pains me to think of what they must be going through.

Next, I would like to point out something that was obvious to me. This attack happened on Friday the 13th. I’m not superstitious, but I also do not believe in coincidences. It would not surprise me if the assaults were orchestrated to happen on this day for symbolic reasons.

If ISIS was behind this attack, and it seems likely that they were, we should consider that they labeled the French as infidels. During the Crusades, France sent the Knights Templar to the Holy Land to fight the Muslims. Afterwards, King Philip, fearing the power of the Templars, orchestrated the arrest and subsequent torture and execution of the Knights Templar on Friday the 13th, 1307. I hate to sound like a conspiracy nut, but the parallel gives me pause. If this was a planned and orchestrated attack, then I can only assume that the perpetrators chose a date that would hold symbolic meaning and would be easily remembered, just as the 9/11 date for the attack on the World Trade Center.

I want to close by reiterating that my thoughts and prayers are with France. My heart goes out to the people there.

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“Henry V” by William Shakespeare

HenryV

Asheville’s local Shakespeare company, the Montford Park Players, are getting ready to open their 2014 season with Henry V. Since I make it a point to attend all their plays, and since I have never read this one before, I decided to squeeze it in amid all my other reading.

Overall, I liked this play, although I confess it was not one of my favorites. Still, there were some great parts and it is certainly worth reading. I think what was a bit of a let-down for me was the chorus, which appears at the beginning of each act. While I have nothing against the inclusion of a chorus part to provide background to the plot, the chorus in this play essentially pleads to the audience to overlook the shortcomings of the play, which basically is that it is impossible to put on a huge spectacle on a small stage. I have to be honest; it sounded a little pathetic to me.

But pardon, gentles all,
The flat and unrais
èd spirits that have dared
On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth
So great an object.

(Act I: Prologue)

Now that I have that out of the way, I can say that as a character, I liked King Henry. He is depicted as strong, just, and merciful, all qualities which are requisite for a good leader. It is expressed that the citizens of England were happy under Henry V’s rule.

Never was monarch better feared and loved
Than is your Majesty. There’s not, I think, a subject
That sits in heartgrief and uneasiness
Under the sweet shade of your government.

(Act II, scene ii: lines 25 – 28)

In Act II, scene iii, we are told about the death of Sir John Falstaff. Although Falstaff does not make an appearance in this play, his death is mentioned. When the question arises whether he is in heaven or hell, the hostess of an inn asserts that she believes him to be in heaven.

Nay, sure, he’s not in hell: he’s in Arthur’s
bosom, if ever man went to Arthur’s bosom. A’ made
a finer end and went away an it had been any
christom child; a’ parted even just between twelve
and one, even at the turning o’ the tide: for after
I saw him fumble with the sheets and play with
flowers and smile upon his fingers’ ends, I knew
there was but one way; for his nose was as sharp as
a pen, and a’ babbled of green fields. “How now,
Sir John!” quoth I “What, man! Be o’ good
cheer.” So a’ cried out “God, God, God!” three or
four times. Now I, to comfort him, bid him a’
should not think of God; I hoped there was no need
to trouble himself with any such thoughts yet. So
a’ bade me lay more clothes on his feet: I put my
hand into the bed and felt them, and they were as
cold as any stone; then I felt to his knees, and
they were as cold as any stone, and so upward and
upward, and all was as cold as any stone.

Another thing that I found very cool about this play is how Shakespeare captures and incorporates different languages and dialects. There are numerous sections written in French, which, since my French is limited to a handful of words, I basically skipped over. But the dialects are excellent. For a great example of this, look at Act III, scene ii. Here we have dialog that includes a Welshman, an Irishman, and a Scot. It’s very witty and Shakespeare plays with the words to capture the subtleties of the language. It works very well and I found it interesting to read, imagining the sound of the words in my mind. I look forward to seeing this scene performed. It’s too long to post here, but definitely take a look at it on your own.

I think for me, though, the high point of the play was King Henry’s speech in Act IV, scene iii. He is speaking to his princes as they are preparing to fight the French army, which greatly outnumbers them. It’s a great speech, but the part that really struck me was a section where he talks about memory, and that it is the stories of their actions that will live on after they die. All things pass away, but it is the story and its connection to memory that lives on. As long as the stories are retold, then we never really perish.

Old men forget: yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember with advantages
What feats he did that day: then shall our names.
Familiar in his mouth as household words
Harry the king, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester,
Be in their flowing cups freshly remember’d.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember’d;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.

In conclusion, I suspect that this is a play that works better on stage than on the page. That said, it is still very good and worth the read. Thanks for stopping by, and keep on reading!!

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Traveling in England and France

So, I know what you’ve been thinking: “It’s been a long time since Jeff posted.” Well, that’s because I was traveling in England and France with my family. I have to say, I had an amazing time. Now, I could write about my travels, but this is Stuff Jeff Reads, not Places Jeff Visits. That said, I did poke around in some interesting bookstores and picked up a couple books.

The first bookstore I visited was The Tiny Book Store in Rye, which is in southern England. Rye is a beautiful old city and was home to Henry James. Going there is like stepping into a different century. Here is a picture I snapped in the cemetery.

RyeCemetery

Anyway, while perusing the Tiny Book Store, I came across an old, hardcover copy of Henry James’ Turn of the Screw. Since I had never read this before and I was in James’ hometown, I figured I would buy it. It has now taken its place in my stack of books waiting eagerly to be read.

My other book purchase was at the famous Shakespeare and Company Bookstore in Paris.

Image: Wikipedia

Image: Wikipedia

This was one of the most amazing bookstores I have ever visited. This bookstore has a rich history and served as a central gathering point for writers such as Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Ezra Pound. In addition, James Joyce used the bookstore as an office. While I was weaving my way through the crooked aisles of books, I chanced upon Turning Back the Clock, a book by Umberto Eco which I had never heard of before. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity. It’s now keeping Turn of the Screw company atop my dresser.

TurningBackTheClock

So, while I have your attention, I thought it would be a good time to give you a heads-up on what I am planning for the near future. I mentioned the connection between James Joyce and the Shakespeare and Company Bookstore. Well, I’ve decided to reread Ulysses, beginning in a couple weeks. I plan on going slowly and posting my thoughts after each chapter. If you are interested in reading (or rereading) what is arguably the greatest modernist novel ever written, you are welcome to do so along with me. I’ll be posting when I begin the book, for those who wish to follow along.

Until then, happy reading!!

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