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Sexual Metaphor in “Much Ado About Nothing” by William Shakespeare

I read this play back when I was in college, and what the professor who taught the class said about it was something that stayed with me ever since. He asserted that in Elizabethan times, “nothing” was a reference to female genitalia. A man had a thing, and a woman had no thing. So basically, you could rename this play “Much Ado About _____” (fill in the blank with your favorite vaginal slang). So when you read the play from this perspective, you quickly notice all the sexual puns and innuendos hidden within the text, which is something I figured we could explore in this post.

Early in the play, Benedick, one of the main characters, asserts that he will forever remain a bachelor, claiming that women are prone to fooling around and making cuckolds of their husbands.

That a woman conceived me, I thank her; that she
brought me up, I likewise give her most humble
thanks: but that I will have a recheat winded in my
forehead, or hang my bugle in an invisible baldrick,
all women shall pardon me. Because I will not do
them the wrong to mistrust any, I will do myself the
right to trust none; and the fine is, for the which
I may go the finer, I will live a bachelor.

(Act I, scene i)

It is also worth noting that his name can be broken down into bene dick, or good dick. According to Oxford Dictionary, the word dick started being used in the 1500’s as a term representing a fellow, or man, in the general sense (https://www.lexico.com/definition/dick). I don’t know whether Shakespeare intended to pun to mean “good man” or “good penis,” but certainly both apply to modern interpretations.

As the play progresses, Don John spreads some lies to make Claudio believe Hero, his betrothed, is not a virgin. Claudio then slut-shames Hero on their scheduled wedding day, in front of her and her family.

Sweet prince, you learn me noble thankfulness.
There, Leonato, take her back again:
Give not this rotten orange to your friend;
She’s but the sign and semblance of her honour.
Behold how like a maid she blushes here!
O, what authority and show of truth
Can cunning sin cover itself withal!
Comes not that blood as modest evidence
To witness simple virtue? Would you not swear,
All you that see her, that she were a maid,
By these exterior shows? But she is none:
She knows the heat of a luxurious bed;
Her blush is guiltiness, not modesty.

(Act IV, scene i)

So if we consider what has happened, Don John’s lies have made something out of nothing, or made a big deal about a woman’s supposed sexuality. And why would men make such an ado about a woman’s sexuality? Shakespeare quickly follows up in the same scene by pointing out that it is the biblical belief that a woman was responsible for original sin, and that a woman’s sexual desire is equated to a fall from grace and a loss of virtue.

Wherefore! Why, doth not every earthly thing
Cry shame upon her? Could she here deny
The story that is printed in her blood?
Do not live, Hero; do not ope thine eyes:
For, did I think thou wouldst not quickly die,
Thought I thy spirits were stronger than thy shames,
Myself would, on the rearward of reproaches,
Strike at thy life. Grieved I, I had but one?
Chid I for that at frugal nature’s frame?
O, one too much by thee! Why had I one?
Why ever wast thou lovely in my eyes?
Why had I not with charitable hand
Took up a beggar’s issue at my gates,
Who smirch’d thus and mired with infamy,
I might have said ‘No part of it is mine;
This shame derives itself from unknown loins’?
But mine and mine I loved and mine I praised
And mine that I was proud on, mine so much
That I myself was to myself not mine,
Valuing of her,–why, she, O, she is fallen
Into a pit of ink, that the wide sea
Hath drops too few to wash her clean again
And salt too little which may season give
To her foul-tainted flesh!

(Act IV, scene i)

In the final act, Don Pedro delivers four lines which for me encapsulate the essence of this play.

Gentlemen both, we will not wake your patience.
My heart is sorry for your daughter’s death:
But, on my honour, she was charged with nothing
But what was true and very full of proof.

(Act V, scene i)

I interpret this as asserting that Hero was deemed guilty for no other reason than that she was female, or had no thing. There would be no ado if she had a thing. It appears to me that Shakespeare was asking the questions: What is the big deal about sex? Why do we care whether a woman is a virgin or not? Does a person’s sexual experience or gender matter all that much in the grand scheme of things? Why do we make much ado about nothing?

In our modern culture, we have made great strides toward equality and acceptance of one’s gender and sexuality, even though we still have a ways to go. I think Shakespeare would be glad that we are making less ado about nothing.

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“Wuthering Heights” by Emily Bronte: A Polemic Against the Patriarchy

This is one of those books that I had been meaning to read for a long time. I bought a used copy many years ago, and have finally gotten around to reading it.

Emily Bronte published this book in 1847, and it provides a harsh view of patriarchal authority which sadly still resonates today as we continue to grapple with issues of gender inequality and the abuse of women.

After Catherine is forced to wed her cousin, Linton, we are presented with a horrific image of Linton’s plan to seize everything that was once Catherine’s, as well as physical and psychological abuse inflicted upon Catherine by Heathcliff, Linton’s father.

“He’s in the court,” he replied, “talking to Dr. Kenneth; who says uncle is dying, truly, at last. I’m glad, for I shall be master of the Grange after him. Catherine always spoke of it as her house. It isn’t hers! It’s mine: papa says everything she has is mine. All her nice books are mine; she offered to give me them, and her pretty birds, and her pony Minny, if I would get the key of her room, and let her out; but I told her she had nothing to give, they were all mine. And then she cried, and took a little picture from her neck, and said I should not have that; two pictures in a gold case, on one side her mother, and on the other, uncle, when they were young. That was yesterday—I said they were mine, too; and tried to get them from her. The spiteful thing wouldn’t let me: she pushed me off, and hurt me. I shrieked out—that frightens her—she heard papa coming, and she broke the hinges and divided the case, and gave me her mother’s portrait; the other she attempted to hide: but papa asked what was the matter, and I explained it. He took the one I had away, and ordered her to resign hers to me; she refused, and he—he struck her down, and wrenched it off the chain, and crushed it with his foot.”

(pp. 204 – 205)

The physical abuse is clear, but the psychological abuse is presented symbolically through the image of the locket. Heathcliff demands that Catherine give Linton the picture of her father as a symbolic gesture of her giving up all connections to her familial past and essentially becoming the property of her husband. She is not only required to relinquish all tangible property, but she must let go of her soul, of who she is, and thereby become nothing but a piece of human property, which can be done with as her husband chooses. When Catherine attempts to resist, the crushing of the locket represents the domination of patriarchal authority over her, stamping out all connections to her former self.

After Linton dies, Heathcliff takes possession of everything that once belonged to Catherine and her family. At one point, Catherine wants to use a small plot of land to create a garden. Heathcliff’s response demonstrates the patriarchal belief that a woman has no rights to any property.

“You shouldn’t grudge a few yards of earth for me to ornament, when you have taken all my land!”

“Your land, insolent slut! You never had any,” said Heathcliff.

“And my money,” she continued; returning his angry glare, and meantime biting a piece of crust, the remnant of her breakfast.

(p. 234)

While this book shows that we have come a long way, it also reminds us that we still have a ways to go. There is still gross gender inequality, as well as disparity between socio-economic classes. But as long as strong voices such as Emily Bronte’s speak out against inequality, we can continue to move forward as a society.

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“Sonnet 37: As a decrepit father takes delight” by William Shakespeare

Painting by Domenico Ghirlandaio

As a decrepit father takes delight
To see his active child do deeds of youth,
So I, made lame by fortune’s dearest spite,
Take all my comfort of thy worth and truth;
For whether beauty, birth, or wealth, or wit,
Or any of these all, or all, or more,
Entitled in thy parts do crowned sit,
I make my love engrafted to this store:
So then I am not lame, poor, nor despised,
Whilst that this shadow doth such substance give
That I in thy abundance am sufficed
And by a part of all thy glory live.
Look, what is best, that best I wish in thee:
This wish I have; then ten times happy me!

In this sonnet, Shakespeare is comparing the adoration he feels toward the fair youth to the love an aging father feels toward his children. As a father who has passed middle age, it is this feeling to which I relate.

When I look at my kids, or talk with them on the phone, I catch aspects of myself reflected in them. As a parent, I have tried to impart only the better parts of myself, but I also see my shortcomings. I guess it’s a package deal. We try to share our experiences, strengths, and hopes, but inadvertently, we also share our fears, flaws, and sufferings. Essentially, we share our lives.

When I see my children happy, the feeling of joy that wells within me is something that is beyond my normal happiness. It is like a geyser of euphoria erupting from my soul. Conversely, when I see my children sad or in pain, the anguish I feel knows no depth. I suspect any parent reading this can relate.

These uncertain times are making me appreciate what is truly important in my life, the relationships to people I love. I hope you enjoyed this post, and I hope you and your family are all safe and healthy.

Many blessings.

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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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“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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Thoughts on “Beauty” by Charles Baudelaire

I am fair, O mortals! like a dream carved in stone,
And my breast where each one in turn has bruised himself
Is made to inspire in the poet a love
As eternal and silent as matter.

On a throne in the sky, a mysterious sphinx,
I join a heart of snow to the whiteness of swans;
I hate movement for it displaces lines,
And never do I weep and never do I laugh.

Poets, before my grandiose poses,
Which I seem to assume from the proudest statues,
Will consume their lives in austere study;

For I have, to enchant those submissive lovers,
Pure mirrors that make all things more beautiful:
My eyes, my large, wide eyes of eternal brightness!

(Translation by William Aggeler)

In this poem, Baudelaire explores the ideal of physical beauty manifest in the female form. The opening stanza conjures an image of sculpted beauty, which I suspect may be an allusion to the Venus di Milo. The beauty of the ideal physical form is an inspiration to other artists, and in Baudelaire’s case, poets in particular. But as the poem progresses through the next three stanzas, a darker image emerges.

As a society, we tend to place physical beauty upon a pedestal, on “a throne in the sky.” The problem is that this ideal is really not attainable, and those who appear to attain that level of physical perfection do so at a great cost. They essentially become statues, hardened on the inside and unable to express human emotion, never weeping and never laughing because that might affect the outward appearance.

While most of the poem seems to be a warning to individuals seeking to attain physical perfection, the last stanza also issues a warning to those who worship physical beauty. The woman whose eyes are as mirrors is letting the enchanted lover of beauty know that his soul is a reflection of her stark, cold inner self. By seeking inspiration from the external, the poet and artist end up compromising their deeper artistic wellspring, hence drying up their true emotions and becoming like stone.

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Thoughts on “Richard II” by William Shakespeare: Divine Rule and Tyranny

This was my first time reading this play, and it was very intriguing. King Richard II is a complex character, who in my eyes is both despicable and pitiable. While he is definitely a tyrant and blinded by his authority and power, he is also kind of simple and easily played by manipulative individuals in court. It was almost like you start out hating him, but as the play unfolds, you realize that he, like everyone, is not all bad, but has made bad choices and often lacks the foresight to anticipate the consequences of his actions.

Anyway, for this post, I figured I would focus on issues of divine rule and tyranny as expressed in the play, a topic whose importance never seems to diminish.

Early in the play, Richard asserts that he is a divine ruler, and that “sacred blood” flows through him. He also hints that he is just and acting in the best interest of the realm.

Mowbray, impartial are our eyes and ears:
Were he my brother, nay, my kingdom’s heir,
As he is but my father’s brother’s son,
Now, by my sceptre’s awe, I make a vow,
Such neighbour nearness to our sacred blood
Should nothing privilege him, nor partialize
The unstooping firmness of my upright soul:
He is our subject, Mowbray; so art thou:
Free speech and fearless I to thee allow.

(Act I, scene i)

Tyranny and hypocrisy often occur in conjunction, and this is the case with Richard. While he ascended to the throne because of heredity (essentially, he inherited the throne), he is quick to deny another person’s inheritance, as evidenced by his swift seizure of Gaunt’s estate to fund his military campaign.

The ripest fruit first falls, and so doth he;
His time is spent, our pilgrimage must be.
So much for that. Now for our Irish wars:
We must supplant those rough rug-headed kerns,
Which live like venom where no venom else
But only they have privilege to live.
And for these great affairs do ask some charge,
Towards our assistance we do seize to us
The plate, corn, revenues and moveables,
Whereof our uncle Gaunt did stand possess’d.

(Act II, scene i)

York is quick to point out the hypocrisy in Richard’s actions, warning him that to follow this course will have repercussions.

O my liege,
Pardon me, if you please; if not, I, pleased
Not to be pardon’d, am content withal.
Seek you to seize and gripe into your hands
The royalties and rights of banish’d Hereford?
Is not Gaunt dead, and doth not Hereford live?
Was not Gaunt just, and is not Harry true?
Did not the one deserve to have an heir?
Is not his heir a well-deserving son?
Take Hereford’s rights away, and take from Time
His charters and his customary rights;
Let not to-morrow then ensue to-day;
Be not thyself; for how art thou a king
But by fair sequence and succession?
Now, afore God–God forbid I say true!–
If you do wrongfully seize Hereford’s rights,
Call in the letters patent that he hath
By his attorneys-general to sue
His livery, and deny his offer’d homage,
You pluck a thousand dangers on your head,
You lose a thousand well-disposed hearts
And prick my tender patience, to those thoughts
Which honour and allegiance cannot think.

(Act II, scene i)

It is this disregard for the rights of others and the hubris of thinking himself above his subjects which is Richard’s tragic flaw, leading to his demise.

This is a critical lesson for leaders today, both in the political and business spheres. The moment you place yourself above others, and deny another person’s rights to advance your own goals and initiatives, you set yourself up to be knocked down. Every action has a consequence, be it good, bad, or indifferent. Nothing occurs within a vacuum, and leaders would do well to remember this.

Thanks for stopping by.

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