Tag Archives: Greek

Change and Transformation in “The Two Gentlemen of Verona” by William Shakespeare

This was my first time reading this Shakespearean comedy. Before diving into the text, I read a quick synopsis online, which said that this is considered to be the first play that Shakespeare wrote. It’s also considered to be one of his worst plays. Granted, the ending did make my eyes roll, but that said, even a bad Shakespeare play is better than a lot of other stuff I’ve read.

The theme of change and transformation really stood out for me when I read this, so I decided to focus my blog post on this concept.

The importance of change and transformation is made evident immediately by Shakespeare naming on of the main characters Proteus, after the Greek sea god associated with mutability.

Some who ascribe to him a specific domain call him the god of “elusive sea change”, which suggests the constantly changing nature of the sea or the liquid quality of water in general. He can foretell the future, but, in a mytheme familiar to several cultures, will change his shape to avoid having to; he will answer only to someone who is capable of capturing the beast. From this feature of Proteus comes the adjective protean, with the general meaning of “versatile”, “mutable”, “capable of assuming many forms”.

(Source: Wikipedia)

Early in the play, Proteus claims that his love for Julia has changed him on a deep level.

Thou, Julia, thou hast metamorphosed me,
Made me neglect my studies, lose my time,
War with good counsel, set the world at nought;
Made wit with musing weak, heart sick with thought.

(Act I; scene i)

But true to his nature, Proteus changes his mind, and decides to disregard his love for Julia in the pursuit of his desire for Silvia, whom is the object of his friend Valentine’s love. Proteus betrays his friend to the Duke (Silvia’s father), who with a twist of irony, asserts that he believes that Proteus is trustworthy and constant in his love for Julia.

And, Proteus, we dare trust you in this kind,
Because we know, on Valentine’s report,
You are already Love’s firm votary
And cannot soon revolt and change your mind.

(Act III; scene ii)

In addition to Proteus’ mental transformations, Shakespeare also has Julia go through a gender transformation, where she takes on the appearance of a young boy. When she finally reveals herself to Proteus, she claims that love makes women change their shapes and men change their minds, which I interpret to mean that men have a tendency to lust after other women, and that, women in order to maintain a man’s interest, must constantly be transforming their appearances to make sure they remain attractive.

O Proteus, let this habit make thee blush!
Be thou ashamed that I have took upon me
Such an immodest raiment, if shame live
In a disguise of love.
It is the lesser blot, modesty finds,
Women to change their shapes than men their minds.

(Act V; scene iv)

There are many more examples of change in the play to support the overall theme, such as the use of the chameleon as a metaphor, changes in music that is being performed, changes in appearance, and people changing their minds. Obviously, Shakespeare knew what we all know, that the only thing that is constant is change.

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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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Folklore in “The Merry Wives of Windsor” by William Shakespeare

This was my first time reading this play, and I have to say, I really liked it. It is very funny and accessible. And while I have also never seen it performed, the language is so rich that I could easily picture the scenes in my mind’s eye as they would be acted out on stage. The play is full of sexual jokes and puns, which I’m sure went over really well with audiences during Shakespeare’s time. But what interests me the most about this play is the folklore woven in to the story.

When plotting revenge on Sir John Falstaff, Mistress Page presents a folk tale about Herne the Hunter

There is an old tale goes that Herne the Hunter,
Sometime a keeper here in Windsor forest,
Doth all the winter-time, at still midnight,
Walk round about an oak, with great ragg’d horns;
And there he blasts the tree and takes the cattle
And makes milch-kine yield blood and shakes a chain
In a most hideous and dreadful manner:
You have heard of such a spirit, and well you know
The superstitious idle-headed eld
Received and did deliver to our age
This tale of Herne the Hunter for a truth.

(Act IV, scene iv)

While the archetype of horned deities that roam the wooded areas are myriad and ancient, what is fascinating about this myth is that Shakespeare’s reference to Herne is the earliest known reference in existence.

In English folklore, Herne the Hunter is a ghost associated with Windsor Forest and Great Park in the English county of Berkshire. He is said to wear antlers upon his head, ride a horse, torment cattle, and rattle chains. The earliest mention of Herne comes from William Shakespeare’s 1597 play The Merry Wives of Windsor, and it is impossible to know how accurately or to what degree Shakespeare may have incorporated a real local legend into his work, though there have been several later attempts to connect Herne to historical figures, pagan deities, or ancient archetypes.

(Source: Wikipedia)

So this begs the question: Was Shakespeare drawing on local folklore when writing this play, or did he just make up the tale of Herne to help drive the story? There is no way to know, but all mythology and folklore must begin by the telling of a story, and that’s what is really important here. It doesn’t really matter whether Shakespeare made this up, or if he heard it being told around a pub. What matters is that the tale was written down, and the myth was given birth, and it persisted. Herne may just be an artistic personification the archetypal forest god, but in the telling of the story and the acting of the play, Herne is given life and brought into existence within our collective consciousness.

The number three has been considered a mystical number for as long as humans have contemplated the magical nature of numbers, which is why Falstaff’s short passage regarding the number three caught my attention.

Prithee, no more prattling; go. I’ll hold. This is
the third time; I hope good luck lies in odd
numbers. Away I go. They say there is divinity in
odd numbers, either in nativity, chance, or death. Away!

(Act V, scene i)

This concept of the mystical power of 3 has become part of folk belief. The phrases are many: “Third one’s a charmer,” “Death comes in threes,” “Three strikes and you’re out.” Once a concept becomes planted in the collective consciousness, it manifests in folk sayings, as shown in the sayings concerning the number three.

Finally, no exploration of English folklore would be complete without mentioning the Fairy Folk, which Shakespeare also does in this play.

About, about;
Search Windsor Castle, elves, within and out:
Strew good luck, ouphes, on every sacred room:
That it may stand till the perpetual doom,
In state as wholesome as in state ’tis fit,
Worthy the owner, and the owner it.
The several chairs of order look you scour
With juice of balm and every precious flower:
Each fair installment, coat, and several crest,
With loyal blazon, evermore be blest!
And nightly, meadow-fairies, look you sing,
Like to the Garter’s compass, in a ring:
The expressure that it bears, green let it be,
More fertile-fresh than all the field to see;
And ‘Honi soit qui mal y pense’ write
In emerald tufts, flowers purple, blue and white;
Let sapphire, pearl and rich embroidery,
Buckled below fair knighthood’s bending knee:
Fairies use flowers for their charactery.
Away; disperse: but till ’tis one o’clock,
Our dance of custom round about the oak
Of Herne the Hunter, let us not forget.

(Act V, scene v)

While the fairies in this scene are just people pretending to be fairies in order to tease Falstaff, the imagery is consistent with the folklore surrounding fairies. And of particular interest is the custom of dancing around the oak tree. The idea of the oak as a sacred tree dates back to Greek mythology. It is mentioned in Celtic, Norse, Baltic, Slavic, Druid, and Wiccan mythology. It even has significance in the Bible as being the place where Jacob buries the foreign gods of his people and under which he erects a stone as the first covenant of the Lord. (Source: Wikipedia)

There is one more folk belief that is in this play that I want to mention, and it is a dark one: the “trial by fire.”

With trial-fire touch me his finger-end:
If he be chaste, the flame will back descend
And turn him to no pain; but if he start,
It is the flesh of a corrupted heart.

(Act V, scene v)

This conjures some very dark images for me. I cannot help but envision innocents accused of witchcraft or heresy tied to a stake and set a flame, as a way to test their guilt or innocence. This serves as a warning to us, that while there is much wisdom to be gleaned from folklore, we must also be vigilant and approach these tales with a critical mind.

In spite of the one dark spot, I still think this is a great and funny play. I hope to see it performed sometime in the near future.

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“On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer” by John Keats

Homer and Keats: Source - BBC

Homer and Keats: Source – BBC

Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-brow’d Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific—and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise—
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

This is considered to be Keats’ first great sonnet, which was composed after reading a translation of Homer by George Chapman, an Elizabethan poet (source: English Romantic Writers).

The poem is broken into two parts, and each section has a different rhyme scheme. The first eight lines comprise the first section which follows an ABBA pattern. This depicts Keats before reading Homer. He describes having visited “realms of gold” and “western islands.” These are metaphors for the poems that he had read up until that time. These were beautiful poems and worthy of Apollo, the god of poetry, but after reading Homer, his entire view on poetry changes, symbolized by the shift in rhyme pattern in the second half.

The last six lines follow an ABABAB scheme and describe how Keats became aware of realms he never knew existed. He first makes an allusion to William Herschel’s discovery of Uranus in 1781, an entire world which was previously unknown. He then compares himself to Cortez and uses the phrase “eagle eyes” to represent his new-found clarity of vision. He describes his feeling as standing upon a mountain in Darien (which is in Panama), and gazing out in awe at a new ocean, which symbolizes the vast depths of new and unexplored poetic inspiration.

I really relate to Keats’ emotions in this poem. I have felt this way in my life, as I am sure most of you have too. When you read that poem or book that changes your view of the world, or hear that song or see that film that opens up a whole new universe of possibilities. This is the true transformative power of art and it is why I read, and listen to new music, and watch films, and go to museums to see paintings.

Thanks for stopping by, and I hope you have an inspiring day.

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“The Apology of Socrates” by Plato

DeathOfSocrates

“The Death of Socrates” by Jacques-Philip-Joseph de Saint-Quentin

I read this back when I was in college, but since I have been listening to the Philosophize This podcast on my drives to and from work, I was inspired to read it again. And yes, I still have my copy of The Last Days of Socrates from school which includes this text.

This text is basically Socrates on trial and the three arguments he presents to the court. The first argument is his closing statement to the jury; the second is after the guilty verdict is returned; and the final section is Socrates addressing the court after they decided on the death penalty.

What struck me upon reading this again is that although the title is the Apology, Socrates never apologizes for his actions. He remains steadfast in his righteousness and asserts that history will prove that he was justified in his pursuit of philosophic truth. I could not help but thinking that the title was meant to be sarcastic or satire.

UPDATE TO POST: A fellow blogger at Earthpages pointed out that Apology as used here comes from the Greek apologia which translates to answer or reasoned defense. This makes more sense. Check out Oxford Center for definition of apologetics

Probably the most famous passage from this text is where Socrates asserts that the reason he is the wisest of all men is because he knows how little he actually knows.

However, I reflected as I walked away: ‘Well, I am certainly wiser than this man. It is only too likely that neither of us has any knowledge to boast of; but he thinks that he knows something which he does not know, whereas I am quite conscious of my ignorance. At any rate it seems that I am wiser than he is to this small extent, that I do not think that I know what I do not know.’

(Last Days of Socrates: p. 50)

We live in an age when technical knowledge is increasing exponentially, and this begs an important question: Does all this knowledge and information actually make us wiser? It’s a legitimate question for the information age. Socrates would say “No.” He asserts that technical knowledge does not equate to wisdom.

Last of all I turned to the skilled craftsmen. I knew quite well that I had practically no technical qualifications myself, and I was sure that I should find them full of impressive knowledge. In this I was not disappointed; they understood things which I did not, and to that extent they were wiser than I was. But, gentlemen, these professional experts seemed to share the same failing which I noticed in the poets; I mean that on the strength of their technical proficiency they claimed a perfect understanding of every other subject, however important; and I felt that this error more than outweighed their positive wisdom.

(ibid: pp. 51 – 52)

Socrates states that “…so long as I draw breath and have my faculties, I shall never stop practising philosophy and exhorting you and elucidating the truth for everyone that I meet.” (ibid: p. 61) Essentially, he is committed to being a life-long learner, something I also aspire to. The day we stop questioning and learning and exercising our mental faculties is the day our minds begin to atrophy. Following Socrates’ example, I plan on reading and writing and thinking for as long as I am physically and mentally capable of doing so, and I hope that you do the same.

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“The Kite Runner” by Khaled Hosseini

KiteRunner

This was one of those books that has been on my list for a long time, and I finally got around to reading it. I remember something Salman Rushdie said when I heard him speak at UNCA: He said if you want to learn about Afghanistan, you read The Kite Runner and not the news. I definitely feel like I learned a lot about Afghan culture from this book.

So the problem I now face is what to write about without providing spoilers for those who have not yet read the book. It’s tough, because so much of the story’s beauty is in how everything plays out. I guess I will focus on some things that resonated with me on a personal level, as well as some interesting symbolism.

One of the more painful memories from my childhood was when a friend of mine, Mason, was getting bullied by a group of older kids. These kids had often bullied me, so I was just grateful that I was being spared. Thinking I might avoid future bullying, I laughed as my friend was attacked. Of course, this did not spare me from future abuse, and I was also wracked with guilt over the pain I saw in my friend’s eyes. Our friendship ended that day and I have long regretted my failure to stand by Mason. So when I read how Amir passively watched and did nothing while his friend Hassan was attacked, I had a reaction which was nothing short of visceral.

I opened my mouth, almost said something. Almost. The rest of my life might have turned out differently if I had. But I didn’t. I just watched. Paralyzed.

(p. 73)

Recently, I have been saddened by the images of Syrian refugees and the stories of their struggles. It is almost unfathomable for a white, privileged American to grasp how it must feel to pack what little you can into a suitcase and flee from your home. The closest experience I have had to that was having to evacuate my home when a hurricane was approaching, packing what I could into my car, and thoroughly expecting the rest of my belongings to be gone within 24 hours. As such, I was stirred by the section of the book where Amir and his father had to flee Afghanistan.

My eyes returned to our suitcases. They made me sad for Baba. After everything he’d built, planned, fought for, fretted over, dreamed of, this was the summation of his life: one disappointing son and two suitcases.

(p. 124)

The one symbol I would like to look at is the pomegranate, which appears throughout the book. “In Ancient Greek mythology, the pomegranate was known as the ‘fruit of the dead’, and believed to have sprung from the blood of Adonis.” In addition, pomegranates “were known in Ancient Israel as the fruits which the scouts brought to Moses to demonstrate the fertility of the ‘promised land’.” Finally, “some Jewish scholars believe the pomegranate was the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden.” (Source: Wikipedia)

In the book, there is a scene where Amir returns to a place from his childhood where a pomegranate tree once grew. The tree is now dead and fruitless, symbolizing the transition of Afghanistan from a rich fertile place to one of death and desolation. In addition, the dead tree also represents the loss of his friendship with Hassan, and the sin and guilt which Amir must bear.

Hassan had said in his letter that the pomegranate tree hadn’t borne fruit in years. Looking at the wilted, leafless tree, I doubted it ever would again. I stood under it, remembered all the times we’d climbed it, straddled its branches, our legs swinging, dappled sunlight flickering through the leaves and casting on our faces a mosaic of light and shadow. The tangy taste of pomegranate crept into my mouth.

(p. 264)

It’s taken me a long time, but I have finally been able to forgive myself for the mistakes I made as a kid. Kids make mistakes; it’s part of growing up. Like Amir in the book, I beat myself up for a long time over mistakes I made, but as I matured as a person, I learned to forgive myself and to become a better person as a result.

What you did was wrong, Amir jan, but do not forget that you were a boy when it happened. A troubled little boy. You were too hard on yourself then, and you still are—I saw it in your eyes in Peshawar. But I hope you will heed this: A man who has no conscience, no goodness, does not suffer. I hope your suffering comes to an end with this journey to Afghanistan.

(p. 301)

It’s impossible to read this book and not be affected by the experience. This book demonstrates the importance of literature. Stories matter. They force us to examine ourselves and help to advance humanity as a whole.

Thanks for stopping my, and keep reading great stuff.

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Monstress: Issue #05

Monstress_05

So far, I’ve been very impressed with this arc. The writing and artwork are both excellent and the storyline is engaging. In this installment, I was particularly intrigued by a passage near the end that sounded like it could have come from an H.P. Lovecraft tale.

… And then, there are the old gods. We know next to nothing about these mythic beings except that they are creatures of immense and destructive power, who the poets believe once threatened nearly all existence. Now only their shadows haunt the world. Many Arcanics worship them, or attempt to placate them with offerings, but there is nothing divine about the old ones. They are horrors. It is said that the most terrible of the old gods was not banished with its kin — that it yet slumbers in our world. When it wakes, may Ubasti save us all.

Reading this again, it also feels as if the creative team was drawing on Greek mythology as well as tapping into Lovecraft. I see similarities between the old gods and the Titans. I suspect the idea of elder gods is something found in many myths.

Anyway, I just wanted to share an interesting quote. Hope you all found it as thought-provoking as I did. Cheers!

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