My mom died, earlier this  week.

There’s no easy way to say that. There’s a starkness to it. A simplicity, and inevitability.  There’s a reason why, when defending the universality and relevance of Shakespeare’s work, I typically start by saying, “Hamlet’s father died.” It is something we all have faced, or will face.  Shakespeare faced it. His characters faced it. Now it’s my turn.

Though I talk a lot about my kids I rarely talk about my parents, and that’s  not going to change today. They’re not Shakespearean characters, and it would be making this event all about myself to try and paint it as such.  I know grandparents that are CEOs and sit on boards of directors.  My mom’s purpose was much simpler.  Drop her in the middle of a pile of grandchildren who would inundate her with “Look what I made!” and “Watch me dance!” and “I got a good grade on my report card!” and she would, forever and ever, tell each one how proud she was, and how much she loved them. And that was more than enough.  I could say that we’re all going to miss that, and that will be true.  But also … they know. People have faith in a variety of different things, but my children have never doubted their Nanta loves them and is oh so very proud of them.

So then let’s talk about Shakespeare.  I’ve thought for a  very long time about what I would do when this day finally came. I’m not going to dig through my archives but long time readers may remember that I have, in recent years, said goodbye to my own grandmother, and several aunts.  So the question of how Shakespeare can bring some degree of comfort at a time such as this has come up from time to time.  And here I am this week putting my own beliefs to the test. I believe that Shakespeare makes life better.

I’ve always known a quote here and snippet there that touch on this moment.  There’s Cleopatra’s “Give me my robe, put on my crown, I have immortal longings in me.”  Or Hamlet’s “I shall not look upon her like again,” if you’ll forgive my pronoun switcheroo. We could do this all day, grabbing a line here or there that catches a bit of the feeling that goes on.  I hadn’t realized, until I found a link to that Bobby Kennedy speech, that “Cut her out in little stars and hers  will make the face of heaven shine so bright,” could also work here.

Then there’s the longer pieces that allow you to pause for a  moment  and  just kind of soak it in. That feeling  that you want to just curl the pages up around you like a blanket.  I found myself staring at  Sonnet  60 the morning  it happened:

Like as the waves make towards the pebbl’d shore,
So do our minutes hasten to their end;
Each changing place with that which goes before,
In sequent toil all forwards do contend.
Nativity, once in the main of light,
Crawls to maturity, wherewith being crown’d,
Crooked eclipses ‘gainst his glory fight,
And Time that gave doth now his gift confound.
Time doth transfix the flourish set on youth
And delves the parallels in beauty’s brow,
Feeds on the rarities of nature’s truth,
And nothing stands but for his scythe to mow:
And yet to times in hope my verse shall stand,
Praising thy worth, despite his cruel hand.
I spoke of this to a friend, who suggested that sonnet 71 is nice as well:
No longer mourn for me when I am dead
Than you shall hear the surly sullen bell
Give warning to the world that I am fled
From this vile world with vilest worms to dwell;
Nay, if you read this line, remember not
The hand that writ it; for I love you so,
That I in your sweet thoughts would be forgot,
If thinking on me then should make you woe.
O, if (I say) you look upon this verse,
When I (perhaps) compounded am with clay,
Do not so much as my poor name rehearse,
But let your love even with my life decay,
Lest the wise world should look into your moan,
And mock you with me after I am gone.
Together we joked that you have to brace yourself for Cymbeline, it’ll bring you to your knees if you’re not prepared.  I’m only copying part of it here:
Fear no more the heat o’ the sun,
Nor the furious winter’s rages;
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
Home art gone, and ta’en thy wages:
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.
And lastly, because  this post is  getting a bit long, we have the Constance’s defense of grief in King John:
Grief fills the room up of my absent child,
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,
Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words,
Remembers me of all his gracious parts,
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form;
Then, have I reason to be fond of grief?
I don’t care who you’re mourning, you know exactly what Shakespeare’s talking about here.  Knowing that passages like this exist makes me feel bad all over again for people that don’t “get” Shakespeare.  Yeah you do, it just hasn’t clicked for you yet.  When it does, he’s there for you.
I know this has been a bit of a ramble but it was always going to be.  In my day to day life I don’t have much Shakespeare content.  I decorate my life with Shakespeare, sure. People know me as the Shakespeare Geek, and they expect that I’ll have all the answers in Trivial Pursuit or Jeopardy. But do I expect any of my friends or relatives to quote Shakespeare at  me at a time like this? Not really, no. Do I expect that I could use one of the above examples to try to explain how I’m feeling, and hope that they know what I’m talking about? Also not really, no.
So here I am, just  kind of shouting into the universe  where I know I’ll be  heard. Thanks for listening, and for your years of support. Shakespeare makes life better because it’s Shakespeare that brought me right here, right now, to have this platform to express these words.  Death is inevitable, and life going on equally so, but how it goes on is up to us.
If anybody has favorite quotes  for times such as  these, feel free to share in the comments. To be honest I’ve been thinking about maybe putting together a collection for exactly that purpose.  Open book randomly, find comforting  words from Shakespeare.  I know I could have used that this week.
I’ve wished “flights  of angels sing thee to thy rest” to many  people over the years, but now I’ve seen it with my own eyes. My mom was big into angels in her final years. We could have called her Angel Geek.  Her life was decorated with angels, from the jewelry she wore to the decorations on her walls, to the theme of any personalized stuff we got her for the holidays with the kids’ names on it.  In her final days one of my cousins brought in a small Christmas tree decorated entirely with angels.  As people would come to visit they were encouraged to take an angel home for their own tree (I have three on my tree right now).  So the next time I say it I know that I know  one personally, and that  she loves her grandchildren very much and is oh so proud  of them.
Flights of angels sing thee to thy rest, Mom.

Guest Post! Shakespeare’s Scientific Revolution : The Bard’s Vision of Astronomy from Copernicus to Galileo

It’s been a long time since we had a guest post, so I’m very pleased with how this one came out! I’m sure I’ve mentioned that my oldest daughter is a budding astronomer so she’ll be quite fascinated by this topic.  Thank you to the authors for reaching out!  (They weren’t even selling anything! :))

Shakespeare’s Scientific Revolution:

The Bard’s Vision of Astronomy from Copernicus to Galileo

Meera Arora and Aparna Venkatesan

With the holidays and the end of the decade fast approaching, the time for nostalgia and romanticizing is upon us. The natural world seems to offer gifts for us to delight in; from the ordinary like fresh snowfall to the extraordinary, like the interstellar comet 21/Borisov, which made its nearest approach to the sun on December 7th this year. Heralded the “Christmas Comet,” it is hard to imagine a more poignant way to usher in the end of the 2010s than viewing a comet from another star system, only the second interstellar comet ever discovered.

However, we have not always lived in awe of the night sky. Prior to the Scientific Revolution, deviations in the night sky, like comets, were seen as portents of ill will or bad omens. For instance: “When beggars die there are no comets seen. / The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes” (Julius Caesar, 2.2.30). With the work of Nicolaus Copernicus and Johannes Kepler, western thought moved away from the idea that human life mirrored celestial cycles, and into a more empirical scientific, as opposed to astrological, mindset. The metaphorical journey from astrology to astronomy is evident not only in scientific innovation and discovery, which can at times seem clinical, but in the more emotionally expressive world of theater and literature.

William Shakespeare has dominated much of his historical and literary era to the point where “Shakespeare’s time” is a phrase synonymous with the early modern period. Though his life ended in the seventeenth century, Shakespeare remains relevant to this day for his honoring of human curiosity and versatility. Although his prominence might overshadow the events of his time, Shakespeare’s plays pointedly reference the years during which he lived, namely in alluding to the concurrent Scientific Revolution and its breakthroughs in astronomy. Much like the themes of fate and coincidence that permeates Romeo and Juliet, coincidences seem to hold more than meets the eye, like the fact that Galileo and Shakespeare were born in the same year (1564). It seems impossible, or narrow-minded at the least, to try and separate the history of Shakespeare’s life from his work, however fantastic some of the elements of his plays and poems may be. Fiction draws from experience, and the era during which Shakespeare lived was rich in many fields beyond the theater. His interdisciplinary knowledge demonstrates a willingness to learn and adapt, and gives readers insight into not just Shakespeare’s work, but the events of his time and the Bard himself. Shakespeare’s lifespan makes him a contemporary of key figures in the Scientific Revolution in western science including Tycho Brahe, Johannes Kepler, and for a time Galileo Galilei. The recurring references to astronomy in Shakespeare’s plays, particularly Julius Caesar, Hamlet, and Cymbeline, coupled with his seeming familiarity with Tycho Brahe which we will explore further, makes a strong case for the idea that not only was Shakespeare knowledgeable about the scientific discoveries of his time, but that they influenced his work in ways that remain relevant to us today.

Hamlet is a particularly bountiful example to focus on; in this play, Shakespeare seems to move away from astrology and towards astronomy. This is not to say that Shakespeare shied away from metaphor or symbolism, but rather that there are lines in these plays that suggest Shakespeare understood astronomical breakthroughs during the late 16th and early 17th centuries. Hamlet contains lines such as: “Doubt thou the stars are fire / Doubt that the sun doth move / Doubt truth to be a liar, / But never doubt I love” (Hamlet, Act II, Scene II). The second phrase, “Doubt that the sun doth move,” calls to mind the ideas of Copernicus’s Concerning the Revolution of the Heavenly Spheres, in which the astronomer argued for the Heliocentric model, introducing the idea that the Earth orbits the Sun and not vice versa.  It also recalls what Galileo allegedly said in 1633, “Eppur si Muove” (“and yet it moves”, referring to the Earth), when he was forced to recant his view that it was the Earth that moved around the Sun rather than the other way around.

Astronomer Peter Usher (Penn State University) goes so far as to argue that Hamlet is an allegory for the competition between two cosmological frameworks that were in rivalry during Shakespeare’s time: the Sun-centered or heliocentric Copernican construct, and the old Earth-centered or geocentric model retained by Tycho Brahe of Denmark. Thomas Diggs’ account of Copernicus’s heliocentric theory may make an appearance in Hamlet: “I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space…” (Hamlet, Act II, Scene II). Usher contends that: “When Hamlet states: ‘I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space . . . ‘ he is contrasting the shell of fixed stars in the Ptolemaic, Copernican, and Tychonic models with the Infinite Universe of Digges” (Usher). The idea of an infinite universe, while familiar to us today, was new in Shakespeare’s time and directly opposed the more archaic idea of spherical shells of stars. Hamlet also suggestively refers to another astronomical event: Tycho Brahe’s Nova or “new star”, known today to be a class of supernova arising from a binary system involving a star and a white dwarf. SN 1572, or Cassiopeiae B, was a supernova in 1572 that was not only visible to the naked eye, but remained so for 1-2 years according to historical records, placing it between Jupiter and Venus in observed brightness.  This would have been both clearly visible and highly memorable, and the lines “When yond same star that’s westward from the pole / Had made his course t’ illume that part of heaven Where now it burns…” (Hamlet, Act I, Scene I) might be a reference to Brahe’s 1572 Nova.

Shakespeare’s ties to Tycho Brahe are particularly strong in Hamlet and made much more evident via characters as opposed to specific lines. The most obvious connection is made in the naming of the characters Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. While these names might seem traditionally Shakespearean, both happen to exist on Tycho Brahe’s family Coat of Arms. Both men were from Danish noble lines, and distantly related. Rosenkrantz seems to be a third cousin of Brahe’s, and his return to London after visiting Brahe in Prague (while traveling with Johannes Kepler) coincides with the time Hamlet was being written. Although Hamlet was published in 1603, Shakespeare was at work on it in 1601, the same year that Tycho Brahe died. Furthermore, Tycho Brahe’s brilliant assistant Kepler was the one to suggest (via Simon Marius) the name Ganymede as a title for one of the Galilean moons. This is notable as Ganymede is a character in Shakespeare’s As You Like It.

In examining even a single play, we see that Shakespeare’s nuanced writing style reflects many aspects of his time, including scientific advances. Although the Church in that period may have been reluctant to accept the “new” astronomical empirical findings, it appears that Shakespeare welcomed the Scientific Revolution and its discoveries. Shakespeare’s legacy of literary works is stunning in its prodigious volume, variety, and depth of observation. That he embraced the milestone achievements of his time in other disciplines through his characters and writing makes him beloved by, and not merely relevant to, scientists and writers several centuries later. As we near the end of 2019, with a special appearance of a Christmas Comet, and the 400th anniversary of Kepler’s Third Law, we honor and remember the interdisciplinary vision of Shakespeare.

Meera Arora recently graduated from the University of San Francisco with a BA in English and two minors in Physics and Astronomy. When not giving names to airy nothings, she spends the majority of her time writing, as well as admiring stars and her dog.

Aparna Venkatesan is a cosmologist at the University of San Francisco studying the first stars and supernovae in the universe, and is thankful to count atomies as she passes through nature to eternity.

Works Cited

 Falk, Dan. “Shakespeare at 450: How science may have influenced his work.”

Falk, Dan. “What Shakespeare Knew About Science.”

Gambino, Megan. “Was Shakespeare Aware of the Scientific Discoveries of His Time?”

Popova, Maria. “Astronomy and the Art of Verse: How Galileo Influenced Shakespeare.”

Redd, Robert. “William Shakespeare in the Scientific Revolution.”

Rowan-Robinson, Michael. ”Shakespeare’s astronomy.”

Usher, Peter. “Shakespeare and the Dawn of Modern Science.”

Usher, Peter. “The Science of Shakespeare.”




Review : The King on Netflix

FalstaffI haven’t been around much lately, and for that I apologize.  I’ve missed a few big stories that I hope to come back around to as part of the year end.

One of those is finally getting to watch The King, an adaptation (?) of Henry V now playing on Netflix and starring Timothée Chalamet as Henry and Robert Pattinson as a psychotic Dauphin, among others.

My ability to watch and appreciate these movies for review is limited.  The only time I’ll get to watch is when the family is safely stowed away for the night, because they don’t want to watch, and I can’t concentrate when I’m getting pulled in various homework directions.  But then during those limited hours I’m typically trying to do several other important things, so the best that I’m going to be able to spare for a movie I don’t really care to watch is “put  it on in the  background while I sit at the laptop.”  For  bonus points I’ll  use closed captions so I don’t have to keep saying “What did he say?”  (Compare to Branagh’s All Is True, which the whole family sat and watched through, uninterrupted.)

So, on to our story.  I’ll admit to not knowing the Henriad story as much as some of Shakespeare’s other plays, so I really have no idea where this one just invents stuff out of whole cloth (for the most part — you’ll see).  We open with Hotspur doing his rebellion thing, leading to the king chosing Hal’s brother Thomas to be the next king and do something about it. Cut to the battlefield where Hal challenges Hotspur to one-on-one battle instead, beating him, and causing a hissy fit from Thomas who screams that his brother stole this victory from him.  This doesn’t last long, as Thomas goes off and gets killed and Hal ends up king anyway.

What of Falstaff? Of course there’s a Falstaff.  But here’s the thing right away – Falstaff looks like he’s maybe ten years older than Hal?  He doesn’t look remotely like a father figure, he looks like one of those guys that graduated college right as you got there and then just kind of hangs around with the young people because he’s got no ambition to do otherwise.  Falstaff roams around doing his Falstaff thing, not paying his bar bill and whatnot, until he hears that Hal has been appointed king.

And then we get my favorite scene, the wonderfully sad “I know thee not,  old man…” scene…..only no wait, we don’t.  At all. Falstaff is appointed to join Hal’s council as one of his trusted war tacticians. Huh?

Cut to France. It’s complicated, but we all know the story ends up in France. That’s where we meet Robert Pattinson’s psychotic Dauphin, who has literally come to meet Hal and tell him that he’s basically going to torture him until he goes home.  There’s even a scene right out of a horror movie where Dauphin and his men, skulking about in the woods around Hal’s camp, send one of the children (why did he bring children??) back to camp with a sign for Hal — the head of one of the other children.  Charming.

Everything builds to Agincourt.  We knew it would. The most entertaining part to me was a nod to the expectation of a big speech moment where Hal basically screams at the men,  “You’re probably expecting a big speech right now!”  And then goes on to give a reasonably modern version of “We’re all going to die someday.”

There’s more to it, but I don’t want to spoil the whole movie in case people want to watch. I found it reasonably violent, but not in a Fassbender’s Macbeth way.  There’s a beheading (in a god awful special effects scene), and one poor dude gets stabbed in the *top* of the head in a scene that made me cringe.  Aim for the soft bits, man!  Ouch!

As with most of these movies the bits of dialogue where people are trying to sound like Shakespeare are painful to the ear. The battles are brutal,  muddy and bloody. I don’t know that I can say it was bad.  It’s more like, ok, somebody made a movie that used Henry as a structure and then kind of did their own thing with it. That’s not a sin.  If you swapped it for Romeo and Juliet that’s basically the plot of many, many movies. I think Falstaff probably had the best character arc. There’s one particular scene, and one particular expression on his face, that makes me wish I was paying closer attention (see opening notes) and maybe want to go back and follow his arc closer.  Just because they gave him a new story doesn’t mean we can’t imagine he’s the same character.


Not Cool, Gloucester

Gloucester and Lear
Gloucester and King Lear. Image courtesy Alexander Barnett

We don’t often pay attention to the very opening of King Lear. The “good stuff” starts with Lear dividing up his kingdom between his daughters, and that hasn’t happened yet.  All we really get is Gloucester introducing Edmund to Kent.

But I was in that part of the text again today and man, Gloucester, not really cool!

Is not this your son, my lord?

His breeding, sir, hath been at my charge: I have
so often blushed to acknowledge him, that now I am
brazed to it.

So right off the bat, “I’m embarrassed to admit this is my son.”  Lovely.  It gets worse.

I cannot conceive you.

Sir, this young fellow’s mother could: whereupon
she grew round-wombed, and had, indeed, sir, a son
for her cradle ere she had a husband for her bed.
Do you smell a fault?

“Son, just sit there quietly while I explain to the nice man that your mother was a whore.”

I cannot wish the fault undone, the issue of it
being so proper.

Kent, for his part, is trying to make the best of the awkward situation. “Regardless of how he came into the world, that’s a fine looking boy you’ve got there!”

But I have, sir, a son by order of law, some year
elder than this, who yet is no dearer in my account:
though this knave came something saucily into the
world before he was sent for, yet was his mother
fair; there was good sport at his making, and the
whoreson must be acknowledged. Do you know this
noble gentleman, Edmund?

Emphasis mine of course, but what son doesn’t love to hear “Well, at least his mom was hot, and great in bed.”  Sure Edmund’s the villain of this story but you pay close attention to a scene like this and think, can you blame him?

I never really noticed the line above about how he holds his other, lawful son (Edgar) “no dearer in my account”.  Does Gloucester have a problem with Edgar right from the start, that is then what Edmund feeds on to set his plan in motion?  Man, Shakespeare thought of everything!


Say Hello To My Little Friend

Before I went to Stratford Upon Avon earlier this year I was daydreaming on Facebook about what sort of new merchandise I might find in the gift shops and what I might want to bring home.  A follower suggested a “Pot Belly” Shakespeare which I’d never seen before!  I held off until I got back from my trip, but was recently looking through comments and reminded myself of that post.

Of course, my wife was sitting next to me at the time, saw my intent and said, “You don’t need any more Shakespeare toys.  He is cute, though.”  That’s as close to permission as I’m ever gonna get.

Check out what came today!

I love him!  He’s much more finely detailed than I expected.  Check out his face:

The weird thing is that his head comes off (on purpose).  Apparently he’s supposed to be some sort of “keepsake” holder, but I have no idea what of value would be small enough to put it there.

I was planning to bring him to work where the rest of my collection resides.  But my wife said, “Oh, I was assuming he’d stay here!”  He’s now sitting atop the microwave, and there he shall stay.  I’ve often talked of “decorating my life” with Shakespeare, so if I can have random Shakespeares around the house with my wife’s blessing?  Oh you know I’m not going to miss that opportunity!