William Shakespeare

Birnam Wood Comes to Dunsinane

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“Study for the Three Witches in Macbeth” by Henry Fuseli, oil on canvas. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The First Apparition (“an armed Head”) warned him to beware Macduff, Thane of Fife; the Second (“a bloody Child”) prophesied that none of woman born could harm him. The Third Apparition (“a Child crowned, with a tree in his hand”) counseled him to assume the mettle of a lion:

                                                 Take no care

Who chafes, who frets, or where conspirers are.

Macbeth shall never vanquished be until

Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill

Shall come against him (4.1.90-94).

From then on, his purpose became firm and clear. He set to “crown my thoughts with acts” by seizing Macduff’s castle and the dominion of Fife. To ensure the end of Macduff’s issue, he resolved to kill “his wife, his babes and all unfortunate souls / That trace him in his line” (4.1.148-153).[1]

“I think nothing equals Macbeth,wrote Abraham Lincoln. “It is wonderful.”

Lincoln’s praise has stood the test of time. Hamlet may be a better play and King Lear a greater tragedy, but a special power inhabits Macbeth, which has led superstitious theater people to talk about the great play in hushed tones and to refer to its title by euphemisms such as “the Scottish play.”

Is there any other play the name of which we fear to speak? (more…)

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Not This Woman, But Barabbas

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Hillary Clinton on 9 February 2016. (Credit: Ted Eytan)

Then cried they all again, saying, Not this man, but Barabbas. Now Barabbas was a robber.

KJ, John 18:40

The Mozart of baseball journalists, an exquisite writer whom I have admired for decades, has shamed me into revealing—for whatever little it’s worth—my vote in the next presidential election. To read Roger Angell’s distinctive, lucid prose is like listening to the song of a water spirit in a fresh mountain stream. At the age of a youthful 96 years, Angell has taken to the pages of the New Yorker (his long-time home) to declare his vote for Hillary Clinton.

I once heard Ruben Berríos, leader of the Puerto Rican Independence Party, say that a US presidential election was always a choice between “Mr. Hamburger and Mr. Hot Dog.” The customary spectacle in our time of two unfortunate male clowns lunging for the presidential chair has been—to say the very least—disheartening. But there is a never-before-seen wrinkle in this year’s election: it is a choice between Mr. Hot Dog and a Woman. Hillary Clinton may yet turn out to be another fool in our endless parade of presidential clowns, but there is no doubt that Donald Trump will be a vulgar buffoon.

I have taken my responsibilities as a democratic voter seriously in this election. At the risk of my sanity, I have heard most of the primary debates, followed the news assiduously in print and social media, and have taken the time—seeking surcease of sorrow—to review the history, speeches and debates of the greatest of presidents, Abraham Lincoln. At the end of this self-imposed Way of the Cross, through which I sought revelation in penance, I make mine Roger Angell’s words: “I will cast my own vote for Hillary Clinton with alacrity and confidence.” And let me clarify: I am not voting for Clinton because I think Trump is a punk (although I do). Trump, to my mind, was the very best of the stable of presidential candidates Republicans offered US voters in the primaries; I will vote for Clinton because I trust (I do) that as president she will walk on paths that I think best for this great country. (more…)

The Chair of Abraham Lincoln

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Portrait of Abraham Lincoln, 9 February 1864, by Anthony Berger. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Assume for a moment that the present status of undocumented immigrants in the US is exactly what we want it to be: except for the criminals, we want them working in the country (in spite of our self-righteous talk about walls and mass deportations); but we don’t want to legalize their status—no amnesty and no path to US citizenship. In these times of deplorable political rhetoric, one does well to find guidance in the bosom of Abraham Lincoln, who was once branded “Abraham Africanus I” by a Copperhead political pamphlet.

Lincoln understood the 1857 Dred Scott decision by the Supreme Court as a cog (“piece of machinery so to speak”) in an effort by the Southern states to “declare the perfect freedom of the people, to be just no freedom at all.”

Here is Lincoln’s analysis of the decision: (more…)

Hamlet, Prince of Bikers

(Credit:  FX)

(Credit: FX)

Abraham Lincoln believed that there was nothing finer than Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and that Claudius’ monologue in Hamlet (“O my offence is rank!”) was superior to Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” speech. We are long since from the time when American presidents could render intelligent opinions about Shakespearean plays, and yet Shakespeare—much like the King James Bible written in Shakespeare’s language—still lives and breathes with us. His heroes and villains, his dramatic structures and his words, his myths and fables, are still our own.

Edwin Booth (brother to John Wilkes) was the finest Hamlet of his generation during the last half of the 19th century. In the 1930s John Barrymore (scion of two illustrious theatrical families), was the last great American Hamlet. After Barrymore’s time, the great vitality of American performative artistry—along with Shakespeare and the taste of American presidents—moved over to films and television. (more…)