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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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“Sonnet 27: Weary with toil, I haste me to my bed” by William Shakespeare

mansleeping

Painting by Carolus Duran

Weary with toil, I haste me to my bed,
The dear repose for limbs with travel tired;
But then begins a journey in my head,
To work my mind, when body’s work’s expired:
For then my thoughts, from far where I abide,
Intend a zealous pilgrimage to thee,
And keep my drooping eyelids open wide,
Looking on darkness which the blind do see:
Save that my soul’s imaginary sight
Presents thy shadow to my sightless view,
Which, like a jewel hung in ghastly night,
Makes black night beauteous and her old face new.
Lo, thus, by day my limbs, by night my mind,
For thee and for myself no quiet find.

For me, this is a poem about one’s obsession for another person and how that can affect someone. We are given a glimpse into the mind of a person painfully in love, who spends his days working in order to distract himself from the longing that is within. But while the toiling is a good distraction, the desire is still below the surface, ever present in the deeper recesses of the mind.

But it is in the evening, when a person goes to bed and tries to sleep, that obsessions most often take the strongest possession. As we stare at the insides of our eyelids, or gaze upon the canvas of a darkened ceiling, thoughts and images are unleashed and we spiral down the rabbit hole. It’s a feeling I know too well. Many a night I have spent lying in bed, thinking about a person, or replaying a scenario over and over in my head. When we are stripped of external distractions, the mind is free to wander where it will.

In line 6 of the sonnet, Shakespeare uses the word “intend” which in the context means direct, specifically that his thoughts are being directed towards the person he loves and is not with physically. I find this a really interesting word choice, because it creates a sense of tension. On one hand, the thoughts appear to be something the speaker is trying desperately to suppress, and yet, there is also a willful intention on his part to summon and direct his thoughts toward his significant other, to conjure the image in his mind. He doesn’t want to think about his love, but he also does not want to forget. It is a feeling that anyone who is missing another person can relate to.

Thanks for stopping by, and have a beautiful and inspiring day.

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“Sonnet 26: Lord of my love, to whom in vassalage” by William Shakespeare

Shakespeare

Lord of my love, to whom in vassalage
Thy merit hath my duty strongly knit,
To thee I send this written ambassage,
To witness duty, not to show my wit:
Duty so great, which wit so poor as mine
May make seem bare, in wanting words to show it,
But that I hope some good conceit of thine
In thy soul’s thought, all naked, will bestow it;
Till whatsoever star that guides my moving,
Points on me graciously with fair aspect,
And puts apparel on my tatter’d loving,
To show me worthy of thy sweet respect:
Then may I dare to boast how I do love thee;
Till then not show my head where thou mayst prove me.

When I first read this poem, knowing it is one of the “fair youth” sonnets, I assumed that the lord to whom it is composed was the fair youth. I still adhere to that interpretation, but it is worth pointing out other interpretations which I cannot claim credit for.

According to what I read online, some scholars believe the lord referenced in the beginning of the poem is Cupid. I can see that, Cupid being the god of love and is often depicted naked. My only hesitation in accepting this is the lack of arrows as images and metaphors in this poem. I feel that if Cupid was the lord, then there would have been more evidence in the verse. Shakespeare was certainly a skilled-enough poet that he could have woven that imagery in. Also, arrows are phallic symbols, so it would have added to the sexuality of the poem, which leads me to the next item I want to discuss.

In the synopsis that I read online, the scholar mentioned that there was a sexual pun at the end. I thought, really? Did I miss something? And it seems I did. As I went back and read more closely, I caught it in the final couplet.

Then may I dare to boast how I do love thee;
Till then not show my head where thou mayst prove me.

“Show my head” could definitely be interpreted as showing his penis, which Shakespeare says he will abstain from doing until he boasts his love. I have to say, I appreciate the bawdy pun. It proves that Shakespeare was not writing for high-brow intellectuals, but that he was writing for the common people of his time, who would have certainly appreciated the sexual pun.

Thanks for stopping by, and have a terrific day.

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“Sonnet 20: A woman’s face with Nature’s own hand painted” by William Shakespeare – An Exploration of Transgender Issues

Venus and Mars

Venus and Mars

A woman’s face with Nature’s own hand painted
Hast thou, the master-mistress of my passion;
A woman’s gentle heart, but not acquainted
With shifting change, as is false women’s fashion;
An eye more bright than theirs, less false in rolling,
Gilding the object whereupon it gazeth;
A man in hue, all “hues” in his controlling,
Which steals men’s eyes and women’s souls amazeth.
And for a woman wert thou first created;
Till Nature, as she wrought thee, fell a-doting,
And by addition me of thee defeated,
By adding one thing to my purpose nothing.
But since she pricked thee out for women’s pleasure,
Mine be thy love and thy love’s use their treasure.

In this romantic “fair youth” sonnet, Shakespeare explores the physical beauty he sees in the youth. He sees the young male as possessing both male and female characteristics, the best of both genders; hence the reference to the youth being “the master-mistress” of Shakespeare’s passion.

The first ten lines are pretty clear, where the poet describes the physical aspects of the facial features, and particularly on how the youth’s face has many feminine qualities. But the last four lines are of particular interest.

The ending focuses on the youth’s genitalia, particularly the fact that he has a penis. When I studied Shakespeare in college, the professor gave a lecture about Shakespeare’s use of the word “nothing.” Basically, nothing meant “no thing,” or the lack of a penis; in other words, nothing means vagina (think “Much Ado About Nothing”). So in this sonnet, Shakespeare is expressing his belief that the youth is really a woman trapped within a man’s body, that “one thing” was added to the youth’s “nothing.” He goes as far as to make a pun about how Nature “pricked thee out for women’s pleasure.” If you think about it, this is a pretty radical poem.

As I read about legislation being passed in the US that discriminates against transgender individuals, I cannot help but wonder why we have not evolved more as a society. These were clearly issues that have been dealt with for a long time now, and Shakespeare certainly seems to have been comfortable with this. Maybe our lawmakers should take some time and read more Shakespeare.

Well, enough politics for one day. Thanks for stopping by and having an open mind. Cheers!

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Doctor Who – Eleventh Doctor: Issue 4

DoctorWho_04

This issue continues where Issue 3 left off, only now John Jones (the David Bowie-esque character) is traveling in the TARDIS with the Doctor and Alice. They end up on a planet where people have been mysteriously going into comas after being attacked by an unseen entity. It is also revealed that secret research on the planet is being orchestrated by the sinister organization, SERVEYOUinc.

The story moves along well and is interesting, but leaves you hanging as it will be continued in the next issue. The real strength in this issue for me, though, is the inclusion of all the humorous puns and references to David Bowie. They are very witty and if you read closely you will catch a lot, like when Jones notices some flies on the space station and comments: “Oh look, there’s flies. Flies from the stars. I’ll call my next band that.” Clearly a play on the Spiders from Mars. There is also a scene where Jones and Alice are in a cafeteria and there is a box of “New Chunky Dories” cereal, which I thought was a clever reference to Bowie’s 1971 “Hunky Dory” album.

To fully appreciate this issue, it helps if you are a David Bowie fan. That said, the story and artwork are both good and you will probably enjoy it, even if you don’t catch all the Bowie references. I’m kind of looking forward to the next issue, especially since I love the early Bowie music. In fact, I think I put my vinyl copy of “Hunky Dory” on the turntable today and give it a spin. And to conclude, here is my favorite track from that album. Enjoy!

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Joyce’s “Ulysses” – Episode 12

CyclopsPolyphemus

This episode corresponds to the section of Homer’s Odyssey where Odysseus and his men are captured by Polyphemus, the Cyclops.

In Homer’s epic, Odysseus lands on the island of the Cyclopes (Sicily) during his journey home from the Trojan War and enters a cave filled with provisions with some of his men. When the giant Polyphemus returns home with his flocks, he blocks the entrance with a great stone and, scoffing at the usual custom of hospitality, eats two of the men. Next morning, the giant kills and eats two more and leaves the cave to graze his sheep.

After the giant returns in the evening and kills two more of the men, Odysseus offers Polyphemus some strong and undiluted wine given to him earlier on his journey. Drunk and unwary, the giant asks Odysseus his name, promising him a guest-gift if he answers. Odysseus tells him “Οὖτις”, which means “no one” and Polyphemus promises to eat this “Nobody” last of all. With that, he falls into a drunken sleep. Odysseus had meanwhile hardened a wooden stake in the fire and now drives it into Polyphemus’ eye. When Polyphemus shouts for help from his fellow giants, saying that “Nobody” has hurt him, they think Polyphemus is being afflicted by divine power and recommend prayer as the answer.

In the morning, the blind Cyclops lets the sheep out to graze, feeling their backs to ensure that the men are not escaping. However, Odysseus and his men have tied themselves to the undersides of the animals and so get away. As he sails off with his men, Odysseus boastfully reveals his real name, an act of hubris that was to cause problems for him later. Polyphemus prays to his father, Poseidon, for revenge and casts huge rocks towards the ship, which barely escapes.

(Source: Wikipedia)

In Joyce’s novel, the Cyclops is represented by an unnamed person who is presented in this section as a first-person narrator. It is therefore from the “I” perspective, a singular and myopic view of the events that unfold. The events take place within a pub, the Dublin equivalent of a cave, dark and enclosed. Throughout the episode, there are lots of puns and wordplay associated with the word “eye.”

—Ay, says I. A bit off the top. An old plumber named Geraghty. I’m hanging on to his taw now for the past fortnight and I can’t get a penny out of him.

(p. 292)

The narrator is not a pleasant person. He seems to have an issue with everyone. He is totally self-centered (focused on his I) and, in my humble opinion, kind of a jerk. But then again, we all have our own egos inside and often think things about others which we keep to ourselves.

Since Odysseus blinded Polyphemus, the metaphor of blindness appears throughout the chapter.

—Some people, says Bloom, can see the mote in others’ eyes but they can’t see the beam in their own.

Raimeis, says the citizen. There’s no-one as blind as the fellow that won’t see, if you know what that means.

(p. 326)

There is a lot of symbolism tied in to this short quote. On one hand, the narrator is blind to the opinions of others. He is solely concerned with his own opinions. Bloom is blind to the hostile anti-Semitic feelings that the people around him are feeling towards him. The people of Ireland, represented by the citizen, are blinded by their intense desire to establish a national identity. Finally, the mention by the citizen of “no-one” is an allusion to the name that Odysseus used when he fooled the Cyclops.

As the episode continues, the environment becomes more and more hostile towards Bloom. This is especially evident through the citizen, who gets so worked up he starts verbally attacking Bloom as he makes his exit from the pub with Martin Cunningham. The citizen follows him out to the street, hurling anti-Semitic insults at Bloom, who responds by naming famous Jews from history, including Jesus, which enrages the citizen even more.

—Mendelssohn was a jew and Karl Marx and Mercadante and Spinoza. And the Saviour was a jew and his father was a jew. Your God.

—He had no father, says Martin. That’ll do now. Drive ahead.

—Whose God? says the citizen.

—Well, his uncle was a jew, says he. Your God was a jew. Christ was a jew like me.

Gob, the citizen made a plunge back into the shop.

—By Jesus, says he, I’ll brain the bloody jewman for using the holy name. By Jesus, I’ll crucify him so I will. Give us the biscuitbox here.

(p. 342)

The episode concludes in a similar manner to the corresponding section in the Odyssey. As Bloom is escaping in the carriage (symbolic of Odysseus’ ship), the citizen, who is blinded by rage, throws the biscuit tin (symbolic of the boulder) at Bloom, but misses his mark.

Begob he drew his hand and made a swipe and let fly. Mercy of God the sun was in his eyes or he’d have left him for dead. Gob, he near sent it into county Longford. The bloody nag took fright and the old mongrel after the car like bloody hell and all the populace shouting and laughing and the old tinbox clattering along the street.

(pp. 343 – 344)

We are nearing the halfway mark in the novel. My next post will cover Episode 13 which in my book ends on page 382 with the word “Cuckoo.”


 

Previous Posts on Ulysses:

Episode 1

Episode 2

Episode 3

Episode 4

Episode 5

Episode 6

Episode 7

Episode 8

Episode 9

Episode 10

Episode 11


 

References:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polyphemus

http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/ulysses/section12.rhtml

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Review of “Kill Shakespeare: Issue #3”

KillShakespeare_03Wow! This tale gets better with each issue. While I confess to being a bit of a Shakespeare snob (yes, I even attended a performance by the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon), I have to say that this comic series works for me on many levels.

The story continues with Falstaff joining Hamlet on his quest. Other characters who make their appearances in this issue are Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, as well as Puck. Lady Macbeth’s villainy is taken to new levels. She is truly wicked and the issue’s final scene is something right out of an Edgar Allen Poe tale.

There is a great section where Hamlet and Falstaff enter The Merry Wives of Windsor, which is a brothel. The scene is hilarious and I chuckled out loud several times. There are great puns and wordplay, and allusions to Shakespearean quotes. The quote that stands out as the funniest is when one of the wenches begs Hamlet to dip his quill into her inkwell. It was classic!

I’d like to talk about one of Puck’s quotes: “Though I be magic and I be most grand, man’s fate lies in your fickle, mortal hand.” I love this quote for several reasons. First, it can be read in iambic pentameter, which Shakespeare used liberally. It also addresses the debate between predestination and free will. Finally, I see a double entendre here, where mortal hand can mean both human action and ideas expressed through writing.

As I finish this post, I admit that I am itching to read the next issue. I’m completely hooked into this story and eager to see how it “plays” out. Expect another post soon.

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