Monday, June 19, 2006

A Nun or a Pimp: Shakespeare's Measure for Measure

A duke leaves his kingdom in charge of a precise and justice-obsessed man, who then sets out to punish all according to the very letter of the law. A man stands condemned to die for impregnating his fiance. A young nun, un-worldly and pure, leaves her cloister to save her brother. Such is the state of the London-like Vienna at the start of Measure for Measure, a play that poses difficulties in genre classification and interpretation.

A comedy usually follows the line of A Midsummer Night's Dream--characters leave a world for an enchanted place, learn and change and grow, and then return different people. Inevitably, marriage follows. Measure for Measure ends in marriages, but the marriages are more punishment than anything else. Characters change and grow, but it seems like they cannot act on what they've learned. Tonally, the play is in not comedic, with its talk of deflowering nuns, lying, and death it is a dark play. Overall, Measure for Measure seems to represent an aborted comedy, a demi-tragedy that leaves the reader wondering how to interpret the characters and events.

For example, there are two ways to view the character of the Duke. He disguises himself as a friar after leaving Angelo in charge of ruling his kingdom and travels around Vienna in the office of a friar. One way to see him is a divine force that brings enlightenment to the characters through his actions. However, he could also just as easily be a manipulative, voyeuristic liar, who twists situations and those around him to his own sinister designs. I tend to see him as a mixture, but an overall disagreeable figure.

I saw the Duke as a liar who manipulated Isabella to his own designs, who later asks a nun to marry him, who wants to believe that he does his actions for the good of his land, but is actually self-serving and cowardly. He runs away from his responsibility in administering justice because he wants his people to love him. At the end of the play, he forces Lucio (a figure of imagination and light, although a bit of a rascal) to marry a prostitute and then be hanged afterward because he was critical of the Duke. But others can just as easily see him as a more benevolent figure, burdened with the conflict between absolute law and wishing to administer mercy.

The entire play follows along this lines. Shakespeare offers us several ambigious circumstances and characters, and leaves it to the reader to interpret them or the play's director to make decisions on how to act the parts. Shakespeare cleverly demonstrates that often there are different ways to interpret a situation and often different perspectives on the telling of a story, a theme that runs constant through his plays.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Shakespeare Goes to Hollywood

I love watching Shakespeare's plays. However, as we all cannot go to the theater at every opportunity, nor do we all have a good theater near us, film offers another option in the enjoyment of the Bard's works. Now they can be done poorly (alas, Mel Gibson, you could have been a great Hamlet but were not), but even the badly done versions and interpretations can give a Shakespearean scholar some insight into the play. After all, they were meant to be watched, not read.

I've seen many of the film version of the plays and have enjoyed a good majority of them. Versions with Kenneth Branaugh are usually a good bet: he plays a chilling Iago in Othello, a tormented Prince in Hamlet, and a Machiavellian king in Henry V, just to name a few. I also enjoyed A Midsummer Night's Dream, Romeo and Juliet, and most recently Twelfth Night.

Which leads me to my post--Twelfth Night. An enchanting comedy about love, disguise, and marriage, the story begins with a shipwreck and the separation of a brother and sister, who just happen to be twins. The sister, Viola, disguises herself as a young man, Cessario, so she can move through society, falls in love with the Duke Orsino, who asks Cessario to woo Olivia for him, who then falls in love with Viola as Cessario. When Sebastian, Viola's twin, reappears, confusion ensues, but ends gracefully as a comedy usually does, with weddings. The play was enjoyable to read, but it wasn't until I watched it that some of the points really hit home. It's amazing how an actor or actress can lend meaning to the lines by how they are said, facial expressions, or other non-verbal additions.

For example, Viola spends most of the play disguised as a man. When reading the play, I didn't really think much about the difficulties that might arise from being a woman who everyone thinks is a man. The movie brought this out brilliantly with several scenes: Viola, as Cessario, is practicing fencing. The fencing instructor comes to correct her form and places a hand on her chest over a hidden breast underneath, whereupon an uncomfortable Viola moves his hand away. Another scene finds Viola encountering her master, the Duke, who happens to be bathing. (Remember that she's in love with him). She responds like a gentlewoman ought, by averting her eyes, but at the same time, she has to try to pretend that it's not a big deal. He also gets her to wash his back which so disturbs her, as a woman, that she shaking drops the sponge and finds an excuse to leave.

None of these idesa were conveyed by reading it, but the film's director (or a play's producer) has to be able to understand what should be said without words to create a film that is both beautiful and alive. Thus our advantage as readers (and scholars) of Shakespeare is to watch different versions (film or live) and observe the differing interpretations. We also have the opportunity to derive more meaning from the words by watching a play after reading it and see the scenes, characters, and language come vividly to life.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Grammar in the Online World

Grammar. It can intimidate us or inspire us--but usually it calls up images of learning about dangling participles, subject-verb agreement, or passive versus active voice. In other words, it can either put people to sleep or terrify them, inspire a yawn or inspire a challenge. For some, learning grammar is like learning to walk; it is an effortless process, albeit a little tedious. For others, it is a constant struggle or a non-issue; they try and try or just give up or don't bother.

Something about the nature of the online world, however, seems to create an environment where grammar is largely ignored. Instead of clear and concise written communication, we have a bastardized form of English where words are abbreviated, capitalization used irregularly (if at all), and punctuation largely ignored. Take, for example, a post on my other blog:

hey just lookin at random sites and i noticed that u like 2 listen to kansas the band well just thought i would tell u that my moms cuz was in the band and my back neighbor too my back neighbor is kerry livegren and my mom cuz i don't know his name lol but ya well cmb

I almost vomited when I read this atrocity. Is it one sentence or two? What is this teenager's point? And since when does the number two ("2") equal "to"? Weren't we drilled in the difference between "two" and "to" from grade school? How about "cuz" for both "cousin" and "because?" I would also like to know when "welcome" could dissolve into "well cmb" and where the hell that "b" came from? Does she have a cold?

Perhaps I'm overly cruel to the ignorant child, but at the same time, we've created an environment where such language is permissible, where the integrity of English is challenged by the widespread use of unclear and abbreviated words. It reflects the speaker's lack of thought in an age of increasing thoughtlessness in both written and oral communication. Sure, language is a living thing and is subject to change, but I worry that it reflects something more than innovation: it reflects a laziness. People are simply too lazy to write out full words (even when it takes the same amount of time to type "well cmb" as "welcome").

Punctuation matters, folks, as does capitalization. Meaning is changed by an incorrect case (there is a difference between Charlie Horse and charlie horse. Do you mean a person or a leg cramp?) And punctuation easily changes meaning as well, as in the famous passage from Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, where Quince says:

If we offend, it is with our good will.
That you should think, we come not to offend,
But with good will. To show our simple skill,
That is the true beginning of our end.
Consider then we come but in despite.
We do not come as minding to contest you,
Our true intent is. All for your delight
We are not here. That you should here repent you,
The actors are at hand and by their
You shall know all that you are like to know.

Now if the punctuation had been properly placed, this passage would mean exactly the opposite of what it says. Instead of saying that they mean to offend with good will, it would instead be a polite introduction. Here's the modified version, the same words, different punctuation: "If we offend, it is with our good will that you should think we come not to offend. But with good will to show our simple skill that is the true beginning of our end. Consider then we come, but in despite we do not come as minding to contest you. Our true intent is all for your delight. We are not here that you should here repent you. The actors are at hand and by their show you shall know all that you are like to know."

Totally different, right?

And to close this post that approaches verbosity, I challenge you all to consider your written speech. It pains me to see otherwise intelligent people shutting down their minds when their hands touch the clicky keys. White, in The Elements of Style (a handy little writing guide), warns of the lure of the exilaration typing can lead to, usually creating wordy, unnecessary sentences. I shall warn of another sort of lure, the lure of allowing expedience and ease of communication prevent clear, thoughtful writing.

Maiden Voyage

Welcome to Poems, Prose, or Parody. I invite you to follow me as I indulge in various literary whims--discussing a good book, ranting about grammar (or lack thereof), or sharing some of my own writing. A few other somewhat-less-than-literary topics may also pop up, but for the most part, this is my little corner of the literary universe.