Tag Archives: history

“I Was Cleopatra” by Dennis Abrams

My friend Robert sent me this book, knowing that I am a bit of a Shakespeare buff. It’s a work of historical fiction intended for a young adult audience. The story is a fictional memoir of a boy actor, John Rice, who assumed the female roles in performances during the rule of King James I.

Similar to what the world is experiencing now with COVID, the plague was rampant in the Jacobean period, and this led to the closing of theaters as a way to control the spread.

In 1603 the plague once again struck London with a terrible ferocity, bringing about the deaths of thousands of innocent men, women and children. To help stop the spread of the dreaded disease, which at its height was laying more than thirteen hundred innocents dead from one Sabbath to the next, it was ordered that theaters in London be closed.

(p. 17)

As John begins his apprenticeship and is groomed to transform himself into female roles on stage, he must confront questions of gender identity and seems to accept the idea of gender fluidity.

This was, or so it seems to me, at the heart of the questions that has haunted my thoughts and even my dreams throughout my life on stage. What exactly is it that makes one a man? Or a woman? Or is it possible to be composed of elements of both? Is there a difference between how you are seen by the world and how you see yourself?

(p. 50)

Some of the more interesting aspects of this book, for me anyway, are the fictional dialogs between Shakespeare and John Rice, as Shakespeare provides insight into the plays and various roles to help John better embody the role. One in particular stands out, where Shakespeare claims that the Guy Fawkes conspiracy helped inspire the themes he would explore in Macbeth.

“What concerns me, John, now that all involved in the nefarious Gunpowder Plot have been given the justice they deserved, is how and why it could have happened. Not merely the specific political and religious reasons for the plot, but in a larger sense how does a seemingly normal if ambitious Scottish nobleman become a murderous tyrant and perform such truly unthinkable and unutterable acts of violence? What sort of lies and stories and pretended reasons do such men tell themselves to justify their actions? Is the source of evil within themselves, or are they being acted upon by outside forces?”

(p. 115)

These are questions that are just as important today as they were in the 1600s. People somehow convince themselves that the cruel and violent acts they commit are somehow justified, even heroic. Is this a part of who we are as a species, or do we allow the words of others to enter our ears and poison our thoughts?

As always, thanks for stopping by and sharing in my musings. I hope you are well, and please stay safe and sane in these turbulent days.

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“The Crucifix, Its Uses and Customs” by Umberto Eco

In this short essay, included in the book Turning Back the Clock, Eco discusses whether it is appropriate to display religious iconography, specifically the crucifix, in institutions of public education. I found this to be particularly interesting, given that there seems to be a growing tension between religion and state institutions in the US. Heated debates have erupted over the inclusion of texts in schools, or the display of the Ten Commandments at government buildings, and there does not seem to be any abatement in this tension.

Eco uses examples from his home country of Italy to make his point.

In Italian universities there are no crucifixes in the lecture halls, but many students are members of Catholic groups like Communione e Liberazione. However, at least two generations of Italians spent their youth in classrooms where the crucifix was hung between portraits of the king and Mussolini, and out of every thirty students in every class some became atheists, others fought with the resistance, and others again—the majority, I believe—voted for the Republic. All anecdotal evidence, if you will, but of historical importance, and this tells us that the presence of religious symbols in schools does not affect the spiritual development of the students.

(Turning Back the Clock: pp. 274 – 275)

Eco makes a great point here. The exposure of young people to religious iconography and doctrine in no way ensures that those individuals will internalize the ideas, and conversely, the lack of these symbols does not mean that individuals will not develop along spiritual pathways. But what Eco adds later in the essay, which to me is the key point, is that tolerance of others is what must be taken into consideration in this issue, and that in a diverse society, if religious topics are to be taught in school, they should be inclusive of all religions.

School curricula of the future must be based not on the concealment of diversity but on teaching the techniques that lead youngsters to understand and accept it. For some time now people have been saying it would be nice, along with religious instruction (and not as an alternative for those who aren’t Catholics), if schools devoted at least one hour a week to the history of all religions, so that Catholic kids might understand what the Koran says or what Buddhists think, and so that Jews, Muslims, and Buddhists (and even Catholics) might understand how the Bible came into being and what it says.

(ibid: p. 276)

I agree with Eco. Personally, I enjoy reading religious texts from diverse traditions and faiths. The idea that one tradition has a monopoly on the truth has led to centuries of warfare and hatred. I feel that every spiritual or religious text has valid insights to share.

Anyway, I think I’ve said enough on this topic. Thanks for stopping by and reading my rambles. Have a great day and keep on reading interesting stuff.

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The Complete Plays of William Shakespeare

This past weekend was a milestone for Stuff Jeff Reads. After publishing my thoughts on The Tempest, I have officially covered every Shakespeare play on my blog. Fear not, though. If you are a Shakespeare fan, there are still plenty of sonnets, as well as some longer poems for me to read and write about.

So here is the list of all 38 plays, with links to my reviews. In addition, you can access everything in my archive via the Books & Poems by Author page. Enjoy, and never stop reading!

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“The Roots of Europe” by Umberto Eco

In this short essay, included in the book Turning Back the Clock, Eco provides a brief summary of how Christian Europe assimilated ideas and traditions from ancient and pagan cultures.

In our current society, the adoption of elements from other cultures is now deemed “cultural appropriation” and is definitely something that is frowned upon. But historically, this has not been the case, as Eco points out, and in the past ideas and traditions were shared and incorporated, the result of which was the blossoming of ideas and persistence of traditions.

Europe has assimilated Greco-Roman culture in law, philosophy, and popular beliefs. Often with a certain nonchalance, Christianity absorbed pagan myths and rituals and forms of polytheism that linger on in popular devotion. It wasn’t only the Renaissance that stocked up on Venuses and Apollos as it embarked on the discovery of the ancient world with its ruins and manuscripts. The Christian Middle Ages built its theology on Aristotle’s thinking, rediscovered by the Arabs, and while it knew nothing of Plato, it knew a lot about Neoplatonism, which had a huge influence on the Fathers of the Church. Nor could we conceive of Augustine, the greatest Christian thinker, without the absorption of Platonic ideas. The very notion of empire, which lies at the roots of a thousand years of struggle among European states, and between states and the Church, is Roman in origin. Christian Europe elected Latin as the language of holy ritual, of religious thinking, of law, and of university debate.

(Turning Back the Clock: p. 270)

Personally, I am OK with exploring ideas and traditions from other cultures, and incorporating those that resonate with me on a spiritual and intellectual level. But I will credit those other cultures and give them the respect and acknowledgement they deserve. And this is a very important thing to keep in mind. I believe it is acceptable to learn from other cultures and to incorporate elements for the advancement of humanity as a whole, but it is not permissible to steal from another culture as a way of diminishing or damaging that culture. Cultures are living organisms that benefit from diversity. Respect and consideration are critical, though. And if you are ever in doubt, best err on the side of caution.

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“Henry VIII” by William Shakespeare: On Politics and Literature

This was my first time reading this particular play, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. The introduction said that the play is a “pageant to be seen rather than a play to be read,” and the abundance of stage directions confirms this. Still, there are some interesting passages, especially in regard to the politics of that age.

The play essentially takes place as King Henry VIII was getting divorced from Katherine of Aragon so that he could marry Anne Boleyn (spelled Bullen in Shakespeare’s text). Toward the end of the play, Queen Anne gives birth to Elizabeth, the future queen, and this is where the text gets really interesting for me.

At the time that Shakespeare wrote this play, James I had succeeded Queen Elizabeth I and was reigning over England. In the final act, Shakespeare pays homage to the two monarchs that ruled during his time, a move that was politically savvy and ensured that he remained within the good graces of the ruler. He did this by crafting a prophesy, asserting that Elizabeth and James were both divinely ordained to do great things during their lifetimes. It is a long passage, but worth sharing.

Let me speak, sir,
For heaven now bids me; and the words I utter
Let none think flattery, for they’ll find ’em truth.
This royal infant–heaven still move about her!–
Though in her cradle, yet now promises
Upon this land a thousand thousand blessings,
Which time shall bring to ripeness: she shall be–
But few now living can behold that goodness–
A pattern to all princes living with her,
And all that shall succeed: Saba was never
More covetous of wisdom and fair virtue
Than this pure soul shall be: all princely graces,
That mould up such a mighty piece as this is,
With all the virtues that attend the good,
Shall still be doubled on her: truth shall nurse her,
Holy and heavenly thoughts still counsel her:
She shall be loved and fear’d: her own shall bless her;
Her foes shake like a field of beaten corn,
And hang their heads with sorrow: good grows with her:
In her days every man shall eat in safety,
Under his own vine, what he plants; and sing
The merry songs of peace to all his neighbours:
God shall be truly known; and those about her
From her shall read the perfect ways of honour,
And by those claim their greatness, not by blood.
Nor shall this peace sleep with her: but as when
The bird of wonder dies, the maiden phoenix,
Her ashes new create another heir,
As great in admiration as herself;
So shall she leave her blessedness to one,
When heaven shall call her from this cloud of darkness,
Who from the sacred ashes of her honour
Shall star-like rise, as great in fame as she was,
And so stand fix’d: peace, plenty, love, truth, terror,
That were the servants to this chosen infant,
Shall then be his, and like a vine grow to him:
Wherever the bright sun of heaven shall shine,
His honour and the greatness of his name
Shall be, and make new nations: he shall flourish,
And, like a mountain cedar, reach his branches
To all the plains about him: our children’s children
Shall see this, and bless heaven.

(Act V, scene v)

Shakespeare eloquently validates the rule of James I, while evoking the praise of Elizabeth, and at the same time, connects both of them to the idea of “divine rule,” that the King and Queen of England were God’s manifestation of power on the temporal plane.

I hope you found this passage interesting. If you are not a Shakespeare buff, you may want to watch instead of read this one. I also will look for a good version to stream online.

Thanks for stopping by, and try not to let the crazy politics of these times overwhelm you. Cheers!

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Thank You, John Lewis

I was sad to hear that the great John Lewis passed away on July 17, 2020. In a time when we are still actively struggling for the rights of black Americans, it was an inspiration to look to him and acknowledge the difference one person can make. He will be sorely missed during these trying times.

I would like to go back and share links to the reviews of his graphic novel series March, which he co-wrote. The books are outstanding and I highly recommend them if you have not read them before. I’m tempted to read them again.

Rest in peace, John, and thank you for your service.

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“Antony and Cleopatra” by William Shakespeare: A Critique on Women Leaders

It is believed that Antony and Cleopatra was written in 1607 or 1608, not long after the death of Queen Elizabeth I, who died March 24, 1603. In the play, Shakespeare paints a disparaging image of Cleopatra as the Queen of Egypt, implying that women are not suited to be rulers. It is possible that Shakespeare was reflecting on the reign of Elizabeth and criticizing her through the character of Cleopatra.

Early in the play, Caesar criticizes Antony, claiming he is womanly and therefore not a fit leader.

You may see, Lepidus, and henceforth know,
It is not Caesar’s natural vice to hate
Our great competitor: from Alexandria
This is the news: he fishes, drinks, and wastes
The lamps of night in revel; is not more man-like
Than Cleopatra; nor the queen of Ptolemy
More womanly than he; hardly gave audience, or
Vouchsafed to think he had partners: you shall find there
A man who is the abstract of all faults
That all men follow.

(Act I, scene iv)

When Antony is preparing to go to battle against Caesar, his friend Enobarbus speaks with Cleopatra, who plans on assisting with the war effort. Enobarbus makes it clear that he does not respect Cleopatra as a leader and views her as nothing more than a sexual plaything for Antony.

Cleopatra:

I will be even with thee, doubt it not.

 Enobarbus:

But why, why, why?

Cleopatra:

Thou hast forspoke my being in these wars,
And say’st it is not fit.

Enobarbus:

Well, is it, is it?

Cleopatra:

If not denounced against us, why should not we
Be there in person?

Enobarbus:

[Aside] Well, I could reply:
If we should serve with horse and mares together,
The horse were merely lost; the mares would bear
A soldier and his horse.

(Act III, scene vii)

In the same scene, Antony’s lieutenant Canidius tells one of the soldiers that they are “women’s men” after Antony places the naval forces under Cleopatra. The disdain that the military personnel feel at having to serve under a woman’s command is evident.

Soldier:

By Hercules, I think I am i’ the right.

Canidius:

Soldier, thou art: but his whole action grows
Not in the power on’t: so our leader’s led,
And we are women’s men.

(Act III, scene vii)

Finally, in the last scene, Cleopatra tells Caesar that the limitations of her gender are the causes of her frailty; in other words, the reason why she lacks the power to rule in the manner of Caesar, who represents male patriarchal leadership.

Sole sir o’ the world,
I cannot project mine own cause so well
To make it clear; but do confess I have
Been laden with like frailties which before
Have often shamed our sex.

 (Act V, scene ii)

Clearly, we have made vast strides toward gender equality since the days of Shakespeare, although we are not yet where we need to be. But I am grateful to be alive in a time where I have seen women leaders assuming their rightful place in the world. I look forward to the day when there are no longer male leaders or women leaders, but just leaders.

Thanks for stopping by.

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Thoughts on “Henry IV, Part 2” by William Shakespeare

In my review of Henry IV, Part 1, I focused on Falstaff. In this second part, Falstaff is still a major character, and delivers some of the wittiest and funniest lines ever, full of sexual innuendo. But rather than rehash what I already covered, I figured I would focus on history, because this is a history, after all.

There is a history in all men’s lives,
Figuring the nature of the times deceased;
The which observed, a man may prophesy,
With a near aim, of the main chance of things
As yet not come to life, which in their seeds
And weak beginnings lie intreasured.
Such things become the hatch and brood of time;
And by the necessary form of this
King Richard might create a perfect guess
That great Northumberland, then false to him,
Would of that seed grow to a greater falseness;
Which should not find a ground to root upon,
Unless on you.

(Act III, scene i)

This passage beautifully expresses why history is so important. When we study the historical trends of individuals, societies, and cultures, we gain an understanding of their backgrounds, of the events that formed them. We can then trace the lineage to where individuals and cultures are in the present day. Using these insights, we can make educated assumptions regarding future trends and possibilities. And yes, there are infinite variables at play which will inevitably influence future events and outcomes, but we can make an educated guess as to likely responses to situations based upon past actions.

Let’s take a hypothetical example. If a country has a history of responding to external threats in an aggressive manner, it would be a reasonable assumption to expect the country to respond in a similar manner to future threats. So while individual leaders will certainly affect whether the retaliation is forceful or tempered, one can be prepared for a likely possible outcome.

I have to say that of all the Shakespearean histories I’ve read so far, I enjoyed Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 the most. They are highly entertaining, elegantly composed, and rich in ideas and imagery. I’m thinking I will have to find some good film versions online to watch. If you have a recommendation, please share.

Thanks for reading.

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Quote from “Monstress: Issue 26”

I’ve been reading this comic from its inception, and it is magnificent, both the visual artwork and the word craft. While I don’t post on each installment, this issue includes a quote I feel is important to share.

You have heard me say this before, but it bears repeating: always be aware, kits, of the silences in history… of those stories that even the poets do not tell.

In our digital age, facts and history are subject to suspicion, and even outright denial. As such, we run the risk of inserting silences into our histories, of losing critical information which could help future generations navigate difficulties which they must inevitably face. Additionally, there are some stories that are painful to tell, but the telling of those stories is important. If we let the stories die out, because we are complacent or afraid, then we are complicit in the decimation of history.

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“Henry IV, Part 1” by William Shakespeare: The Archetypal Figure of Falstaff

Although this play is a history, it is way funnier than some of Shakespeare’s comedies (just read Measure for Measure). In fact, the “historical” events seem to be more of a background for the antics of Sir John Falstaff.  A more apt title would be The Merrie Adventures of Sir John Falstaff. There were times I found myself ginning or chuckling out loud as I read. For this reason, I figured I would focus my post on Falstaff, and particularly how he embodies an archetype.

Falstaff is a completely unrepentant indulger in worldly pleasures. He has no qualms with being overweight, a cheat, a glutton, a whoremonger, basically, embracing everything society warns us against. And in spite of his wallowing in earthly delights, he does not suffer, but plods on happily regardless of the chaos swirling around him. His main concern is finding his next cup of sack.

With this in mind, we can look at Falstaff as the archetype of the fallen soul, who passes on all things heavenly to enjoy the pleasures of the flesh.

That villanous abominable misleader of youth,
Falstaff, that old white-bearded Satan.

(Act II, scene iv)

This quote made me think about Falstaff’s name, and I figured it might be broken down, such as “False Staff.” If the Good Shepherd uses his staff to lead humans along the Heavenly path, then the great “misleader” would use a false staff to lead others down the “wrong” path. I would also venture to assert that there is a sexual innuendo here too, that the staff that leads men astray is in fact the staff within their trousers.

But is the pursuit of physical pleasure truly a sin? Falstaff presents a defense of his actions.

But to say I know more harm in him than in myself,
were to say more than I know. That he is old, the
more the pity, his white hairs do witness it; but
that he is, saving your reverence, a whoremaster,
that I utterly deny. If sack and sugar be a fault,
God help the wicked! if to be old and merry be a
sin, then many an old host that I know is damned: if
to be fat be to be hated, then Pharaoh’s lean kine
are to be loved. No, my good lord; banish Peto,
banish Bardolph, banish Poins: but for sweet Jack
Falstaff, kind Jack Falstaff, true Jack Falstaff,
valiant Jack Falstaff, and therefore more valiant,
being, as he is, old Jack Falstaff, banish not him
thy Harry’s company, banish not him thy Harry’s
company: banish plump Jack, and banish all the world.

(Act II, scene iv)

This for me is the key to understanding Falstaff. Should someone be banished for being human, for indulging in the desires that are natural to all of us? To banish one person for succumbing to the flesh would mean that all humans must be banished. And isn’t that what essentially happened, according to the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden?

Dost thou hear, Hal? thou knowest in the state of
innocency Adam fell; and what should poor Jack
Falstaff do in the days of villany? Thou seest I
have more flesh than another man, and therefore more
frailty.

(Act III, scene iii)

There is a bit of Falstaff in all of us. Whether we repress those desires, or whether we choose to indulge ourselves, we cannot deny that they are a part of us, that this is an integral part of the human condition. Falstaff lets us know that we should not flagellate ourselves because we eat too much, or drink too much, or fornicate too much. What Falstaff teaches us that that we should accept ourselves, with our faults, because we all have faults. And once we accept those faults and can love ourselves anyway, then we can progress as individuals.

Thanks for stopping by. I’ll be reading Part 2 soon.

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