Tag Archives: tragedy

“Richard III” by William Shakespeare: Deformity and Evil

To really understand this play, you must have a basic understanding of the concept of the great chain of being.

For Medieval and Renaissance thinkers, humans occupied a unique position on the chain of being, straddling the world of spiritual beings and the world of physical creation. Humans were thought to possess divine powers such as reason, love, and imagination. Like angels, humans were spiritual beings, but unlike angels, human souls were “knotted” to a physical body. As such, they were subject to passions and physical sensations—pain, hunger, thirst, sexual desire—just like other animals lower on the chain of being. They also possessed the powers of reproduction unlike the minerals and rocks lowest on the chain of being. Humans had a particularly difficult position, balancing the divine and the animalistic parts of their nature. For instance, an angel is only capable of intellectual sin such as pride (as evidenced by Lucifer’s fall from heaven in Christian belief). Humans, however, were capable of both intellectual sin and physical sins such as lust and gluttony if they let their animal appetites overrule their divine reason.

(Source: Wikipedia)

To emphasize the importance of this concept, Shakespeare uses the word “knot” extensively throughout the text, symbolizing things from marriage to physical form. And just as Shakespeare and other Renaissance thinkers believed in the correspondence between the worldly and the divine realms, they also believed that the physical and the spiritual aspects of an individual were also knotted together.

Richard is a despicable character who seems to lack any redeeming qualities. He revels in his depravity and it is impossible to feel any sense of empathy for this person who is presented as the English equivalent of a Caligula. But what I find the most interesting is that Shakespeare establishes a clear connection between Richard’s physical deformities and his evil nature. In fact, during Richard’s opening soliloquy, the connection is immediately established.

But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks,
Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass;
I, that am rudely stamp’d, and want love’s majesty
To strut before a wanton ambling nymph;
I, that am curtail’d of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deformed, unfinish’d, sent before my time
Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them;
Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity:
And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.
Plots have I laid, inductions dangerous,
By drunken prophecies, libels and dreams,
To set my brother Clarence and the king
In deadly hate the one against the other:
And if King Edward be as true and just
As I am subtle, false and treacherous,
This day should Clarence closely be mew’d up,
About a prophecy, which says that ‘G’
Of Edward’s heirs the murderer shall be.
Dive, thoughts, down to my soul: here
Clarence comes.

(Act I: scene i)

We can contrast this with a description of Edward, whose physical beauty reflects the nobler qualities of a human being.

Hath she forgot already that brave prince,
Edward, her lord, whom I, some three months since,
Stabb’d in my angry mood at Tewksbury?
A sweeter and a lovelier gentleman,
Framed in the prodigality of nature,
Young, valiant, wise, and, no doubt, right royal,
The spacious world cannot again afford
And will she yet debase her eyes on me,
That cropp’d the golden prime of this sweet prince,
And made her widow to a woeful bed?

(Act I: scene ii)

And again, Shakespeare reiterates that an individual’s face, or physical expression, is a direct reflection of what that person is like inside, and the thoughts and feelings that the person has within.

I think there’s never a man in Christendom
That can less hide his love or hate than he;
For by his face straight shall you know his heart.

(Act III: scene iv)

In our modern society, we want to tell ourselves that we do not judge others by their appearances, when in actuality, we still do. Studies have shown that individuals are considered more trustworthy if they have a nicer appearance. And there is the whole issue of judging blacks and people who look Arabic strictly upon how they look. We are not going to change this part of our collective being overnight, but we need to acknowledge this tendency and work toward changing it.

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“Timon of Athens” by William Shakespeare

I recently saw this play performed on stage. Prior to that, I had no idea what this play was about, except that it probably had something to do with a guy named Timon who was from Athens. What I discovered was a really cool play which touched on themes that I could relate to. I decided to read the text and explore the nuances of the text.

To very briefly summarize this play, it is about a guy named Timon who was from Athens (surprised?) who was fortunate enough to have some degree of wealth. Timon was very generous and would hold lavish parties for his friend, give them expensive gift, and offer charity to those in need. But after a while, Timon found himself in financial trouble and sought the aid of his friends. It is an old but true cliché, that when you are down and out, you discover who your real friends are. Timon sadly discovers that his friends were false and just hung around to sponge off of him. Not a single person offers to help him. Disillusioned with humanity, he leaves society to live in the wild, certain that all people are solely motivated by greed and selfishness.

Early in the play, there is some foreshadowing of what will happen to Timon.

When Fortune in her shift and change of mood
Spurns down her late beloved. all his dependants
Which labored after him to the mountain’s top
Even on their hands and knees let him slip down,
Not one accompanying his declining foot.

(Act I: scene i)

After Timon’s flattering fake friends turn their back on him, he comes to the realization that humans are worse than animals. Animals would not use each other for material gain, or neglect each other when difficulties arise. This dark revelation affirms in his mind that humans are not to be trusted, and this loss of faith in mankind swiftly turns to a hatred of all humanity.

Timon will to the woods, where he shall find
The unkindliest beast more kinder than mankind.
The gods confound—hear me, you good gods all! —
The Athenians both within and out that wall!
And grant, as Timon grows, his hate may grow
To the whole human race of mankind, high and low!
Amen.

(Act IV: scene i)

While Timon is in the woods, he is accosted by some bandits who suspect he has some hidden treasure. Timon responds by pointing out that nature can provide all of a person’s needs, that money is not required in order to thrive.

Your greatest want is you want much of meat.
Within this mile break forth a hundred springs.
The oaks bear mast, the briers scarlet hips.
The bounteous housewife, Nature, on each bush
Lays her full mess before you. Want! Why want?

(Act IV: scene iii)

As I finished this play, I was reminded of the song “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out.” And while I have had my share of experiences with fair weather friends, I am also fortunate enough to have close friends who have always been there for me in my time of need. For this I am grateful.

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Hamlet on Acceptance: The Readiness is All

hamlethoratio

Not a whit. We defy augury. There’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come. If it be not to come, it will be now. If it be not now, yet it will come—the readiness is all. Since no man of aught he leaves knows, what is’t to leave betimes? Let be.

(Act V, scene ii)

This may be my most often quoted passage from Hamlet, because I think of it a lot. And lately, in the wake of the election and watching social changes beginning to unfold, I once again return to Hamlet for wisdom and guidance.

By the fifth act of the play, Hamlet has been through the proverbial ringer. His entire world has crumbled around him. He has dealt with the loss of loved ones, was betrayed, struggled with thoughts of suicide, questioned his sanity, and faced “analysis paralysis” as he wrestled with whether or not he should act or respond to certain events. But now, Hamlet reaches the point of acceptance. He understands that what will be will be, regardless of what he does. I am reminded of the teachings in the Tao Teh Ching, to stop fighting against the flow and instead follow the current and allow the current to bring you to the place where you are supposed to be.

And of course: “the readiness is all.” It is pointless to obsess about what is, what was, and what may happen. The best we can do is prepare ourselves mentally and spiritually for what is to come. And what a relief it is to shed the burden of obsession and accept what is to be. And once we let go and accept, then we can be loving, caring, and supportive of others, and that is what I truly believe our purpose is in this life.

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“Ulalume” by Edgar Allan Poe

Illustration by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Illustration by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Then my heart it grew ashen and sober
As the leaves that were crisped and sere —
As the leaves that were withering and sere,
And I cried — “It was surely October
On this very night of last year
That I journeyed — I journeyed down here —
That I brought a dread burden down here —
On this night of all nights in the year,
Ah, what demon has tempted me here?
Well I know, now, this dim lake of Auber —
This misty mid region of Weir —
Well I know, now, this dank tarn of Auber,
This ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir.”

(excerpt from poem)

This is a fairly long poem, and I debated whether to include the entire text here. I decided to include some excerpts and a link to the entire text. Click here to read the poem on the Edgar Allan Poe Society website.

This is a poem about being haunted by the loss of a loved one, not unlike “Annabel Lee” or “The Raven.” It is set in October and incorporates seasonal metaphors symbolizing death, such as withering leaves, ashen skies, and cypress trees. But for me, the most intriguing aspect of this dark poem is the exploration of the subconscious mind.

The protagonist describes travelling with his Psyche, or Soul, through the boreal regions of the north.

Here once, through an alley Titanic,
Of cypress, I roamed with my Soul —
Of cypress, with Psyche, my Soul.
These were days when my heart was volcanic
As the scoriac rivers that roll —
As the lavas that restlessly roll
Their sulphurous currents down Yaanek
In the ultimate climes of the pole —
That groan as they roll down Mount Yaanek
In the realms of the boreal pole.

As I read this, I envision the frozen northlands, the Aurora Borealis, and vast expanses of wilderness coated with ice and frost. These represent the speaker’s subconscious mind, where memories and dreams lie frozen in an area that is difficult to reach. He enters this realm with his Psyche, the part of his consciousness connected with the realm of dreams, imagination, and memory. There is also an active volcano, which symbolizes fiery and painful passion and emotion surging up to the surface from deep within. It’s an incredibly powerful image and captures the deep sorrow that the protagonist feels.

While in the deepest recesses of the subconscious, Poe describes the appearance of the goddess Astarte.

At the end of our path a liquescent
And nebulous lustre was born,
Out of which a miraculous crescent
Arose with a duplicate horn —
Astarte’s bediamonded crescent
Distinct with its duplicate horn.

Astarte is a goddess of fertility and sexuality, often associated with Venus. I interpret this as the protagonist envisioning the soul of his departed love having merged and become a part of the divine feminine. It’s an interesting idea, that male souls emanate and return to the masculine aspect of the godhead, while the female souls emanate and return to the feminine aspect of the divine. It is almost like a dualistic version of Plotinus’s theory of divine emanation. I suspect this is something I will be meditating on for a while.

Overall, this is a beautifully crafted and evocative poem that works on many levels for me. While I don’t think it’s as popular as some of Poe’s other poems, I feel it is as good if not better.

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Afterlife with Archie: Issue #9

AfterlifeArchie_09

It’s been a year since the last Afterlife with Archie comic, and this one hits you like an unexpected sucker punch. It reads like a Shakespearean tragedy, where Reggie, the protagonist of this installment, is overcome with guilt over his actions that ultimately led to the current crisis. He struggles with thoughts, memories, questioning his basic humanity and grappling with the fact that he might be a sociopath, void of human emotion and unable to feel empathy or compassion.

After confessing to Kevin, Reggie leaves the group and goes off on his own, in an attempt to atone for his sins and shed the guilt that is festering within. But at the final moment, when it comes time to do what he needs to do, something happens which causes him to fully embrace his dark side. He becomes the sociopath he feared he might be. It is that poignant, tangible instance where an individual crosses the threshold to become the thing he loathes.

We have seen this archetype so many times before in literature, but it never ceases to fascinate me. What is it that finally causes someone to relinquish their hold on the last thread of their humanity?

Reggie says that we all envision ourselves as the hero, as the one doing the right thing. But sometimes we lose sight of what is truly right and the path that seems clear is the one that leads us to our ultimate demise.

I think: “Everyone is the hero of their own story.” You don’t find out who you really are until the world tests you…

While this is a brilliant story and beautifully illustrated, it is a very dark and disturbing tale. It forces us to look at ourselves in a way that is not comfortable. But in my opinion, that is the purpose of art, to make you uncomfortable and to challenge your established beliefs about the world and yourself.

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“Lenore” by Edgar Allan Poe

Image Source: Wikipedia

Image Source: Wikipedia

Ah, broken is the golden bowl! the spirit flown forever!
Let the bell toll! -a saintly soul floats on the Stygian river –
And, Guy De Vere, hast thou no tear? -weep now or never more!
See! on yon drear and rigid bier low lies thy love, Lenore!
Come! let the burial rite be read -the funeral song be sung! –
An anthem for the queenliest dead that ever died so young –
A dirge for her, the doubly dead in that she died so young.

“Wretches! ye loved her for her wealth and hated her for her pride,
And when she fell in feeble health, ye blessed her -that she died!
How shall the ritual, then, be read? -the requiem how be sung
By you -by yours, the evil eye, -by yours, the slanderous tongue
That did to death the innocence that died, and died so young?”

Peccavimus; but rave not thus! and let a Sabbath song
Go up to God so solemnly the dead may feel no wrong!
The sweet Lenore hath “gone before,” with Hope, that flew beside,
Leaving thee wild for the dear child that should have been thy bride –
For her, the fair and debonnaire, that now so lowly lies,
The life upon her yellow hair but not within her eyes –
The life still there, upon her hair -the death upon her eyes.

Avaunt! tonight my heart is light. No dirge will I upraise,
But waft the angel on her flight with a paean of old days!
Let no bell toll! -lest her sweet soul, amid its hallowed mirth,
Should catch the note, as it doth float up from the damned Earth.
To friends above, from fiends below, the indignant ghost is riven –
From Hell unto a high estate far up within the Heaven –
From grief and groan to a golden throne beside the King of Heaven.”

When I read this poem, I immediately sensed a connection with “The Raven,” Lenore being mentioned in that poem and “never more” appearing in the first stanza in this poem. As I started reading it, I felt the heavy sadness often associated with Poe’s works, but by the time I reached the end, I felt oddly uplifted and hopeful.

The first thing I did after reading the poem was looked up who Guy de Vere was and learned he was Lenore’s fiancé.

Lenore’s fiancé, Guy de Vere, finds it inappropriate to “mourn” the dead; rather, one should celebrate their ascension to a new world.

(Wikipedia)

I completely agree with this sentiment. When we die, I believe that the spirit moves on to the next level of existence, that we are freed from our worldly suffering and progress to the next phase of our spiritual evolution. The pain and suffering that accompanies death is felt the ones who are left behind.

I recall seeing my father’s body after he passed away. He had suffered from a long illness and was wracked with pain and atrophy toward the end. The difference in the way he looked during his last days and after he passed was dramatic. All I could think of was that he was now free from his suffering and I felt grateful for that.

I suspect that after I die, people will mourn me. I would like to say that they should not, that like de Vere, they should celebrate my ascension into the great divine mystery. But that is probably unrealistic. I know I would be devastated to lose any one of the people who are close to me, even though I truly believe they would be moving on to a better place. Death is such an emotional experience, it’s hard to be logical when the bell tolls.

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“When I Have Fears” by John Keats

Keats

When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain,
Before high piled books, in charactry,
Hold like rich garners the full ripen’d grain;
When I behold, upon the night’s starr’d face,
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour,
That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the fairy power
Of unreflecting love;—then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.

As I was deciding what to read this morning, the title of this poem caught my eye; we all have fears, and I certainly have my share.

In this sonnet, Keats contemplates his death, and specifically, the things he will be unable to accomplish in his life as a result of his impending death. Considering Keats’ health issues associated with tuberculosis, this is understandable. But there is more here than just a “woe is me” sense of self-pity, which allows the reader to connect with what Keats was experiencing.

Keats felt that he had a purpose in life and that he was here for a reason. There were poems he needed to write, books he was meant to read, love he was supposed to experience. And as he stands alone at the threshold, he realizes at a deep level that he will not fulfill his life’s true purpose. This is the key to why this poem affects the reader at such a visceral level. It is a shared human emotion to feel that we each have a purpose in life, that we are here for a reason, to complete certain things. And this feeling becomes more pronounced when death is imminent. As we reflect back and think about what we wanted to achieve but failed to do, our dreams and aspirations “to nothingness do sink.” We have lost our opportunity, and therein is the tragedy of this sonnet.

We all have our “bucket lists,” things we want to do before we die. This poem reminds us that we need to pursue those dreams now, because we may not have time later. There is nothing worse than standing alone “on the shore of the wide world” and thinking: “If only…”

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Magneto: Issue #11 – What is a Hero?

Magneto_11

This issue addresses with the question: What is a hero?

It is most often in times of great tragedy that heroes are born. Only the flame of suffering burns hot enough to forge one’s spirit. These men and women… these heroes… have seen sorrow. They have endured and triumphed. At times, I have been the source of said adversity. Yet they have come through the fire stronger than they were before. But none of that matters now. The Red Onslaught is upon us, and perseverance in the face of tragedy… is worth no more than the dirt upon which heroes fall.

I’ve read this passage several times and it keeps getting deeper for me. All heroes suffer. All heroes overcome adversity. But ultimately, all heroes fall. There is a cycle that pertains to the heroic. And whether the hero falls as a result of a tragic flaw or a mistake, the fall is inevitable.

I will say one more thing about this issue; Doctor Strange makes a brief cameo appearance. I confess that I am very excited about the upcoming Doctor Strange film. I wonder if Marvel is going to start dropping Easter Eggs in their comics.

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“Coriolanus” by William Shakespeare: How Politicians Manipulate Public Opinion

Coriolanus

Today is Election Day, so I figured it would be appropriate to write about something political. I had seen this play performed this past summer and really enjoyed it. I found its themes of political opposition and the manipulation of public opinion to be relevant to modern American politics.

Before I get into the politics of this play, I figured I’d touch on a couple things that I feel are important. Firstly, while this is a tragedy, only one person dies: Coriolanus. I sort of expect a stage full of carnage in a good Shakespearean tragedy, but that’s not the case here. As far as his tragic flaw, his main flaw is his pride, a somewhat hackneyed flaw in my opinion, but it fits. He is also a poor communicator, which is a problem for anyone playing the political game. Finally, I have to mention his relationship to his mother. Freud would have a field day with this. He addresses his mother with reverence while calling his wife “woman.” Pleasing his mom seems to be Coriolanus’ chief motivator throughout the entire play. One could certainly write an entire post on this mother/son relationship, but I will leave that to someone else.

OK, now on to the politics.

I constantly marvel at people’s ability to forget the past and change their views based upon the latest media hype. I confess that I thought this was a modern issue and the result of diminished attention span; but it seems that this was the case in Shakespeare’s day also. As the scheming tribunes Brutus and Sicinius consider Coriolanus’ recent popularity and the likelihood of his election as consul, Sicinius points out how easy it is to sway public opinion.

Sicinius:

Doubt not
The commoners, for whom we stand, but they
Upon their ancient malice will forget
With the least cause these his new honours, which
That he will give them make I as little question
As he is proud to do’t.

(Act II, scene i)

The two then discuss how to manipulate the public’s opinion of Coriolanus by implying that he does not care about them, that he is full of pride and a tyrant, and that he will ultimately take away their freedoms. This is exactly the type of partisan hyperbole used by each political party to rally voters.

Brutus:

So it must fall out
To him or our authorities. For an end,
We must suggest the people in what hatred
He still hath held them; that to’s power he would
Have made them mules, silenced their pleaders and
Dispropertied their freedoms, holding them,
In human action and capacity,
Of no more soul nor fitness for the world
Than camels in the war, who have their provand
Only for bearing burdens, and sore blows
For sinking under them.

Sicinius:

This, as you say, suggested
At some time when his soaring insolence
Shall touch the people–which time shall not want,
If he be put upon ‘t; and that’s as easy
As to set dogs on sheep–will be his fire
To kindle their dry stubble; and their blaze
Shall darken him for ever.

(Act II, scene i)

When Coriolanus must face the populace and the accusations of the tribunes, his mother offers him some advice.

Volumina:

I prithee now, sweet son, as thou hast said
My praises made thee first a soldier, so,
To have my praise for this, perform a part
Thou hast not done before.

(Act III, scene ii)

Shakespeare draws a comparison between acting and politics. In both, one is on a stage, performing a part for the public. In fact, there is even a term for this, “Political Theater,” which is defined as actions by politicians intended to make a point rather than accomplish something meaningful.

In modern American politics, pitting the rich against the poor is common political practice. On one side, the rich are told they should have disdain for the poor, who are depicted as lazy and seeking only to live off the wealth which they worked hard for. Conversely, the poor are told that the rich are nothing but a bunch of greedy money-grabbers seeking to exploit them. It appears that this type of divide was also exploited by politicians in Shakespeare’s time to manipulate the public.

Sicinius:

Bid them all home; he’s gone, and we’ll no further.
The nobility are vex’d, whom we see have sided
In his behalf.

Brutus:

Now we have shown our power,
Let us seem humbler after it is done
Than when it was a-doing.

Sicinius:

Bid them home:
Say their great enemy is gone, and they
Stand in their ancient strength.

(Act IV, scene ii)

As is often the case, political games and craft have a tendency to backfire.

Menenius:

‘Tis true:
If he were putting to my house the brand
That should consume it, I have not the face
To say ‘Beseech you, cease.’ You have made fair hands,
You and your crafts! you have crafted fair!

Cominius:

You have brought
A trembling upon Rome, such as was never
So incapable of help.

Both Tribunes:

Say not we brought it.

(Act IV, scene vi)

As I read this, I could not help but think about the mess in the Middle East. For years the US has been involved in that conflict, offering support to whichever faction seems to be more aligned to our political stance. The results of this policy has been disastrous, to say the least. Yet, our political leaders continue to make the same mistakes and play the same political games.

As members of a democracy, we have a responsibility to educate ourselves on the issues that affect our society and the world around us, and to make decisions based upon our views. It is important that we do not fall victim to the manipulation of political factions who seek only to wrest control of power from the other side. Regardless of which political side you lean towards, you should avoid buying in to the propaganda that is shoveled our way by political action groups on either side.

Thanks for taking the time to read my post, and if you are an American citizen, go out and vote today.

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“Hymn” by Edgar Allan Poe

Duccio di Buoninsegna

Duccio di Buoninsegna

It’s been a while since I read any Poe, so I got my Complete Tales and Poems and looked for a short poem which I had not read before. I came upon this one.

At morn — at noon — at twilight dim —
Maria! thou hast heard my hymn!
In joy and woe — in good and ill —
Mother of God, be with me still!
When the Hours flew brightly by,
And not a cloud obscured the sky,
My soul, lest it should truant be,
Thy grace did guide to thine and thee;
Now, when storms of Fate o’ercast
Darkly my Present and my Past,
Let my Future radiant shine
With sweet hopes of thee and thine!

The speaker here is a Catholic who is devoutly praying to the Virgin Mary. It seems that the speaker is currently in pain and is seeking solace through prayer. Although the gender of the speaker is not known, I am just going to refer to him as he, since Poe was male.

The lines imply that the man’s past was happy and that his previous prayers were offered in gratitude. But then something tragic occurred which not only cast a cloud over his present, but also his past. My impression is that it is the death of a loved one, either a spouse or a child. He is currently suffering the loss while his memories of past times, whether they be joyous ones or feelings of regret for things not done, are now rising to the surface.

In the time of crushing sorrow, he turns to the traditions which have providing grounding throughout his life, which is prayer. The fact that the word “Hours” is capitalized in line 5 implies that he is practicing the Catholic Liturgy of the Hours, where he prays eight times a day at regular times. He has faith that by turning his pain over to the Virgin Mother, that his suffering will be eased. Mary suffered through the death of her child, so he is turning to her for support in his time of loss.

The death of a loved one is one of those events that often lead individuals to seek spiritual guidance and support. It is important to note that the person in this poem already has a firm spiritual foundation in his life, so it is easy for him to turn to his faith in his time of need. I guess the moral is that we should not wait until tragedy strikes to build our spiritual connections, we should begin doing so now.

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