Here Be Monsters

This month’s posts are sponsored by No Shave November. To help raise cancer prevention awareness, and some money along the way, all proceeds from this month’s advertising, merchandise and book sales are being donated.  If you’d like to support the site by supporting the cause, please consider visiting my personal fundraising page linked above, where you can make a direct donation.

Some folks may have been part of this conversation on Twitter.  I’d like to expand on some thoughts here, where they feel more permanent.

For my daughter’s “Monsters in British Literature” course they’re just wrapping up The Tempest. One of the questions she was tasked with answering was (paraphrased), “Do you think Caliban is the monster of the story?  If he’s not, who is?”  I know that they read something else in class that basically laid out the “what is a monster” rules, but I can’t find that to reference it at the moment.

But there’s only a few characters in the story, so let’s talk about all the candidates.


On the one hand we’ve got colonizing Prospero.  He shows up on an inhabited island and says, “Mine now.” Promptly enslaves its few inhabitants, possibly even killing one of them.  It’s never really said what happens to Sycorax, is it? I used to think she just kind of died and left Caliban there to fend for himself, but how in the world does Prospero know so much about her if that’s true?  Did he learn it all from Ariel?  Caliban didn’t even know how to talk when he met Prospero, so that’s unlikely.

On the other hand we’ve got forgiving Prospero. He has his enemies in his grasp, and can smite them any time he wants. Instead he opts to forgive and forget – even his treacherous brother Antonio, who we will speak more of shortly.

Personally I don’t find him the monster. Especially when you play the “all in care of thee” card.  He’s a dad protecting his daughter from the world.  What dad doesn’t have a little animal instinct in him on that level?  See a threat, neutralize the threat. Only put down your card if someone else is going to take your place (say, for instance, her getting married).


The “too easy” answer.  Sure he’s this base creature who would hardly be civilized if it wasn’t for Prospero.  Is that so bad?  Caliban was minding his business on his own island when this dude just showed up and took over. Of course he’s got some resentment issues.  He’s got some issues with Prospero, sure – but remember that Prospero is in complete magical control of him, and can basically torment him with pinches and cramps whenever he wants.  How can we fault Caliban for not wanting a little retaliation?

Sure, there’s the Miranda thing. He did try to “people this isle with Calibans”.  Honestly I tend to lump that in with base biological instinct. He’s closer to an animal than a person.  What do animals do?  They eat, they mate, they fight.  That doesn’t make every animal a monster. But what ultimately turned me against Caliban is the way he offers her to Stephano as a prize.  Don’t forget, after you kill her father, she’ll keep your bed nice and warm! That is not the instinctive act of an animal. That is a strategic move, using another human being to negotiate a deal.  Caliban’s got a lot of reasons to hate Prospero, but to take them out on his daughter? That’s a bit much for me.


I only really put him here as a technicality, because in theory his job is to bash Prospero in the head with a log and then take Miranda as his wife. He doesn’t seem to have much of a problem with this plan, on either front.  But are we really expected to ever be afraid for Prospero?  Think Stephano an actual threat?  I don’t think so. He’s comic relief.  If I’m not mistaken (though I do not have the text readily available), I think he even shows a certain distaste for the gruesome work at hand, as if he’d rather not go through with it.  Hardly a monster behavior.


I don’t think people explore evil Ariel enough.  Most of the magical work that’s done in the play is done by Ariel.  Prospero’s charms appear mostly of the “prevent you from doing things” variety, have you noticed that? He binds Ariel to his service. He freezes Ferdinand, and binds him to service. Presumably Caliban is also bound to service, or why wouldn’t he flee?  All of the other stuff, the shipwreck, the magical dogs, the voices … that’s all Ariel.

You get hints of dark Ariel.  He’s clearly not too thrilled about having escaped the bondage of his tree, only to land in Prospero’s bondage.  Don’t we think that he would have killed everybody on board if Prospero had let him? With no remorse?

One of the features of a monster, if I recall the book correctly, is that they live away from man by choice, interact only out of necessity or circumstance, and then return to solitude.  That certainly fits Ariel.  Desires his freedom. Minute he gets it? Gone.


It’s easy to forget that Antonio’s even there, if you only pay attention to the marquee characters.  First of all he’s the character that conspired to steal his brother’s kingdom.  As far as he’s concerned, his brother (and his niece) can just go somewhere and die.  Remember that it is Gonzalo that saves them.

When the opportunity presents itself Antonio is quick to attempt a move up the ladder by killing the sleeping king, too. It’s not even like the man is a manipulator who has other people do the dirty work, he’s got it in him to hold a drawn sword over a defenseless victim without hesitation.

Perhaps most importantly, in the final scene where everything is revealed, we learn that Prospero is alive and not only can he look his brother in the eye, but that he forgives him?  Antonio says … nothing. Everybody else wants to hear the story of how everything seems to have turned out so happily. But Antonio? You get the feeling that before the play’s even over, Antonio is already planning when he can get his kingdom back. He probably regrets not killing Prospero in the first place.


Did I miss any contenders?  I don’t think we could really argue that Miranda or Ferdinand or Trinculo are monsters.  Sycorax and Setebos might be two other possibilities, but I mean come on, they’re not even in the story.  You’d be filling in 99% of their back story just to make your case.


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Bringing Back The Jubilee

An argument can be made that were it not for David Garrick‘s Shakespeare Jubilee in 1769, none of us would be here today singing Mr. Shakespeare’s praises. Speaking of singing, much of the music from the celebration found its way into Garrick’s The Jubilee, staged later that year and running for 90 performances.

Have you ever heard it? Neither have I.  Retrospect Opera, a small UK charity that makes professional recordings of important musical theatre works from Britain’s past, would like to change that.

Although the Jubilee is a seminal moment in Shakespeare’s reception history, and marked the consecration of Stratford-upon-Avon as a centre for literary pilgrimages, most of the music – which is consistently fresh and delightful – has never been recorded before. We want to create something that is at once scholarly, with appropriate supporting documentation, and musically and theatrically done to the highest level, capturing how much fun it all was.
They are currently fundraising and looking for backers to help see them over the finish line. Stephen Greenblatt and Jonathan Bate have already endorsed the project.
If you would like to donate to this project, you can use this link.
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Found The Shakespeare Ninja

I love it when I get more Shakespeare than I expected.

Typically I start my work morning from the company kitchen doing various “sit at the computer” chores, like following up on emails or paying some bills.  Today I was finding video of the 2012 London Olympics because they used Caliban’s “Be not afeard” speech in both the opening and closing and I’d told my daughter’s teacher I would send links.

While I am doing this, a couple of coworkers sit down and we start to discuss Shakespeare – led by them asking me questions, not me boring them.  The conversation goes something like this:

“I read my share of Shakespeare, but never The Tempest.”

“Yeah, it’s a later play, probably most famous because people think of it as the last thing Shakespeare wrote. But it’s also the one that fits the fairy tale model the best, so it’s what I used to introduce my kids to Shakespeare.”


“Sure.  It basically goes once upon a time there was a little girl who lived on an island with her father, a powerful wizard.  She learns that she is a long lost princess.  One day pirates crash land on the island, and she meets a prince who promises to take her away to live happily ever after.”

“Seriously? That’s the plot of The Tempest?”

“Well, there’s a lot more to it than that.  But for a five year old?  Sure, that’s about it.  That works better than there’s this guy, see? And his uncle killed his dad and slept with his mom.  That only works with Lions.  And his best friends are a meerkat and a warthog!”

“Rosencrantz and Guildenstern?”

“Exactly.  If you hadn’t guessed I’m one of the ones who thinks there’s more *not* Hamlet in Lion King than is Hamlet, but I understand why people think that.  Uncle kills the king, son has to reclaim the throne? Fine, done, Hamlet. But that doesn’t mean everything else is automatically a parallel.  R & G were spies sent by Claudius to take Hamlet to his execution, they weren’t his best buddies going off on adventures and learning about life.  If you want to play that angle, Shakespeareans suggest it has more to do with Henry IV.”

“That’s the one with Falstaff, right?”

“Exactly. One of Shakespeare’s greatest unknown creations. If you haven’t studied Shakespeare, you probably don’t know Falstaff.  People know the title characters, your Richard III, Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, and so on.  But there’s a case to be made that Falstaff is one of Shakespeare’s best.”

<fast forward as I bring up the big finish to Chimes at Midnight, the “I know thee not, old man” scene>

The two I’ve been speaking with agree that this is a very fine bit of acting, and we start wrapping it up to get back to work.  Another coworker, who I do not normally have much contact with, has come in for coffee on the tail end of that and makes a curious face, wondering what he missed.

“Oh, just some morning Shakespeare,” I tell him.

“Sorry I missed it,” he replies.  He then makes his coffee while rambling about imitating contagious clouds or something.  I assume that he is trying to sound Shakespearey.  People do that to me sometimes.  “Mine coffee thus needeth more sugar!” and what not.

“Cool,” I say when he looks at me for a response.  He leaves.

I fire up Open Source Shakespeare and check something. Son of a gun!

Yet herein will I imitate the sun,
Who doth permit the base contagious clouds
To smother up his beauty from the world,
That, when he please again to be himself,
Being wanted, he may be more wonder’d at,
By breaking through the foul and ugly mists
Of vapours that did seem to strangle him.

He was quoting Henry IV Part 1!  I messaged him to confirm that I had to look up his reference, that I had totally missed it.  He apologized for getting the quote wrong.

I’ve worked here three years, that’s the first time he’s made a Shakespeare reference.  I wonder how many others I’m surrounded by on a daily basis?  It’s kind of exciting never knowing when random Shakespeare’s going to come at you unexpectedly.

This month’s posts are sponsored by No Shave November. To help raise cancer prevention awareness, and some money along the way, all proceeds from this month’s advertising, merchandise and book sales are being donated.  If you’d like to support the site by supporting the cause, please consider visiting my personal fundraising page linked above, where you can make a direct donation.

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Palimpsest for Life

I know the search engine optimization (SEO) game is an ongoing battle for Google to stay one step ahead of everybody, but this is getting ridiculous.  This story only has a little Shakespeare but I couldn’t pass it up.

I think I’ve mentioned in the past that I have a book channel of sorts at my day job.  We have a book club that does the traditional “one book a month that we vote on” type of thing, but because of the amount I read, I have my own channel where I just brain dump book review after book review.  Last year I think I read 70 books? Something like that.

Anyway, just this morning I’d finished writing up Perdido Street Station by Chia Miéville, and made a comment about the author’s vocabulary:

I read a review that said “the author writes like he swallowed a thesaurus” and had a laugh because that’s quite true. Some words are just so out of the ordinary that they leap out of the page and yell “Remember when this word was on a vocabulary quiz back in high school!” I haven’t heard “palimpsest” in years, but over the last couple of weeks of reading this one he used it probably 4 or 5 times.

Later that day I was talking to Bardfilm about interpretations of Ophelia (doesn’t everybody do that?) and I learned something, so I had reason to google “olivier’s ophelia” – as in Sir Laurence Olivier’s interpretation of a particular scene with Ophelia.  Here’s what google gave back:

Note the third result returned, if you’re not getting it.


If it turns out that Google is actually ordering search results based on the fact that I searched “palimpsest” earlier that day (once, to confirm the dictionary definition), then I just give up trying to win the SEO game.  That’s crazy.

Somebody else search “olivier’s ophelia” for me and tell me if palimpsest shows up, or it was just for me?


This month’s posts are sponsored by No Shave November. To help raise cancer prevention awareness, and some money along the way, all proceeds from this month’s advertising, merchandise and book sales are being donated.  If you’d like to support the site by supporting the cause, please consider visiting my personal fundraising page linked above, where you can make a direct donation.

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Bearded Like The Pard

For No Shave November I immediately went into the text and searched for beard references to talk about.  There’s a good one in the Seven Ages of Man speech in As You Like It:

And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth.

Something I never really thought about … what’s a pard?

Just about everybody says, “Oh, that means leopard.”  Which I’d accept, except for the fact that, well, a pard is actually a thing. Sure, it’s really just the mythical parent creature of a leopard (which is supposed to be the offspring of a lion and a pard – get it? leo+pard?). But I still found it interesting that everybody was glossing over something potentially so obvious.

The mythical creature known as a pard.
This pard has no beard.

The Wikipedia page linked above cites the Aberdeen Bestiary, which dates back to the 12th century.

Here’s where the journey gets interesting. Remember in the first Harry Potter book, where the kids hear the name Nicolas Flamel, and Hermione realizes that she saw a reference to him in a book in the restricted section?

I remember my first visit to the Folger Library, where I was introduced to a book called “The Historie of Foure-Footed Beastes“. So naturally I thought, “Is pard in that book? I must find out!” (Unlike in the Hogwarts restricted section, the librarian actually encouraged my perusal of this particular book. But I would never have thought at the time to look for a pard.)

I love that I have resources now.  It didn’t take long for our own resident wizard Bardfilm to produce the relevant pages:

The Story of the Pard

“Leopardus the Leopard or Libbard, is a word devised by the later writes, compounded of Leo and Pardus, upon opinion that this Beast is generated betwixt a Pardal and  Lion, and differs from Panthera in nothing but sex, and other say, that betwixt the Lions and the Pardals there is such a confused mixed generation as is betwixt Asses and Mares, or Stallions and Asses : as for example, when the Lion covereth the Paral, then is the Whelp called Leopardus, a Leopard or Libbard, but when the Parda covereth the Lioness, then it is called Panthera a Panther.”

What this does not tell us, at least as far as I’ve been able to read, is what kind of creature a pard or “pardal” was in the first place!

I haven’t given up the quest quite yet.  I’ll let you know if there are any new discoveries!

This month’s posts are sponsored by No Shave November. To help raise cancer prevention awareness, and some money along the way, all proceeds from this month’s advertising, merchandise and book sales are being donated.  If you’d like to support the site by supporting the cause, please consider visiting my personal fundraising page linked above, where you can make a direct donation.

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