Welcome to The Coffee Shop, just for you early risers on Monday mornings. This is an Open Thread forum, so if you have an off-topic opinion burning a hole in your brainpan, feel free to add a comment.
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances . .
— As You Like It, Act II, scene vii
Give me my Romeo. And when I shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night
And pay no worship to the garish sun.
— Romeo and Juliet, Act III, scene ii
April is National Poetry Month in both the United States and Canada, and it is also the birth month of the greatest writer in the English language, William Shakespeare. Tradition says he was born on April 23, 1564, and his death was recorded on April 23, 1616.
Earlier English playwrights wrote entirely in rhymed verse, but the tradition was shifting by the time William Shakespeare arrived in London. Christopher Marlowe was alternating between poetry and the new ‘blank’ verse, but Shakespeare, with his remarkable gift for taking a trend and making it his own, soon outshone him.
As in an orchestra, where some instruments like the clarinet can be used for both comic and tragic effect, the line is thin in Shakespeare’s poetry between laughter and heartache, and his shifting use of rhymed and blank verse offer us a trail of clues through the transforming moods.
In tragedies, he inserts ‘comic relief’ — a character spouting nonsense doggerel (but usually containing a slyly witty commentary) like the Fool in King Lear — to keep the audience from overloading into ‘bad laughter’ (think of Mary Tyler Moore at the funeral of Chuckles the Clown). But Lear’s Fool is also the voice of wisdom — take a look at this passage, where Kent finds and rescues the outcast King and the Fool, wandering in the storm:
Let the great gods,
That keep this dreadful pother o’er our heads,
Find out their enemies now. Tremble, thou wretch,
That hast within thee undivulged crimes,
Unwhipp’d of justice: hide thee, thou bloody hand;
Thou perjured, and thou simular man of virtue
That art incestuous: caitiff, to pieces shake,
That under covert and convenient seeming
Hast practised on man’s life: close pent-up guilts,
Rive your concealing continents, and cry
These dreadful summoners grace. I am a man
More sinn’d against than sinning.
Gracious my lord, hard by here is a hovel;
Some friendship will it lend you ‘gainst the tempest:
Repose you there; while I to this hard house—
More harder than the stones whereof ’tis raised;
Which even but now, demanding after you,
Denied me to come in–return, and force
Their scanted courtesy.
My wits begin to turn.
Come on, my boy: how dost, my boy? art cold?
I am cold myself. Where is this straw, my fellow?
The art of our necessities is strange,
That can make vile things precious. Come,
Poor fool and knave, I have one part in my heart
That’s sorry yet for thee.
He that has and a little tiny wit—
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,—
Must make content with his fortunes fit,
For the rain it raineth every day.
True, my good boy. Come, bring us to this hovel.
[Exeunt KING LEAR and KENT]
This is a brave night to cool a courtezan.
I’ll speak a prophecy ere I go:
When priests are more in word than matter;
When brewers mar their malt with water;
When nobles are their tailors’ tutors;
No heretics burn’d, but wenches’ suitors;
When every case in law is right;
No squire in debt, nor no poor knight;
When slanders do not live in tongues;
Nor cutpurses come not to throngs;
When usurers tell their gold i’ the field;
And bawds and whores do churches build;
Then shall the realm of Albion
Come to great confusion:
Then comes the time, who lives to see’t,
That going shall be used with feet.
This prophecy Merlin shall make; for I live before his time.
— King Lear, Act 3, scene ii
The Fool sings his little ditty for the King, but stays to make a prophecy of the future for us. Like most prophecies, it is confusing and contradictory. He speaks first of clergy mouthing the word of God while betraying it, brewers cheating by watering down their beer, nobles so concerned with fashion they are “their tailors’ tutors,” and young men getting “burned” by sexual diseases instead of heretics burning at the stake. But then he shifts to all court cases settled justly, no gentlemen in debt, no slander or petty crime, and madams and whores building churches, which sound like good things, yet he predicts will plunge the realm into confusion, and reduce all those who live to see it to going on foot. Then the Fool attributes this prophecy to a yet-to-come Merlin.
Is he being satirical?
We are living in a time of great deceit — leaders who freely say one thing and do another, while endlessly obfuscating the truth; when debts for the poor and the nation are ever rising; when lawsuits backlog the courts and judgments too often favor the rich; when our fossil fuels, which have so changed how we get from place to place, are running out. I do find the Fool’s words ironic, and that they suit our times all too well.
Shakespeare often makes use of rhymed couplets to end scenes on his bare stage, using them like doors for actors’ exits, and scenery changers to shift time and/or location. His fluid transitions of place and mood call on each play-goer’s emotions and imagination.
The Prologue by Chorus which opens Henry V is Shakespeare’s blank verse at its height, as he builds scenery and a cast of thousands with words alone, but he ends with a rhymed couplet for Chorus to make a bow and exit:
O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention,
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!
Then should the warlike Harry, like himself,
Assume the port of Mars; and at his heels,
Leash’d in like hounds, should famine, sword and fire
Crouch for employment. But pardon, and gentles all,
The flat unraised spirits that have dared
On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth
So great an object: can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?
O, pardon! since a crooked figure may
Attest in little place a million;
And let us, ciphers to this great accompt,
On your imaginary forces work.
Suppose within the girdle of these walls
Are now confined two mighty monarchies,
Whose high upreared and abutting fronts
The perilous narrow ocean parts asunder:
Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts;
Into a thousand parts divide on man,
And make imaginary puissance;
Think when we talk of horses, that you see them
Printing their proud hoofs i’ the receiving earth;
For ’tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings,
Carry them here and there; jumping o’er times,
Turning the accomplishment of many years
Into an hour-glass: for the which supply,
Admit me Chorus to this history;
Who prologue-like your humble patience pray,
Gently to hear, kindly to judge, our play.
How greatly Romance is enhanced in Shakespeare by poetry, not only for star-crossed lovers, but for his lovers in comedy as well. The ‘secondary lovers’ in The Merchant of Venice speak some of Shakespeare’s loveliest poetry, but are still teasing each other:
The Merchant of Venice — Act V, scene i
Enter LORENZO and JESSICA
But the eloquence of his tragedies remain for me a Wonder of the World that no building, however imposing, will ever match:
Romeo and Juliet — Act V, scene iii
. . . . . Ah dear Juliet,
Why art thou yet so fair? shall I believe
That unsubstantial death is amorous,
And that the lean abhorred monster keeps
Thee here in dark to be his paramour?
For fear of that, I still will stay with thee;
And never from this palace of dim night
Depart again: here, here will I remain
With worms that are thy chamber-maids; O, here
Will I set up my everlasting rest,
And shake the yoke of inauspicious stars
From this world-wearied flesh. Eyes, look your last!
Arms, take your last embrace! and, lips, O you
The doors of breath, seal with a righteous kiss
A dateless bargain to engrossing death!
Come, bitter conduct, come, unsavoury guide!
Thou desperate pilot, now at once run on
The dashing rocks thy sea-sick weary bark!
Here’s to my love!
O true apothecary!
Thy drugs are quick. Thus with a kiss I die.
It is left to the Prince, who must decide the fate of the living, to close to the play, ending in another rhymed couplet:
A glooming peace this morning with it brings,
The sun, for sorrow, will not show his head:
Go hence, to have more talk of these sad things;
Some shall be pardon’d, and some punished:
For never was a story of more woe
Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.
For those who are joining us for the first time, this is Week One of my annual musings on Shakespeare. I claim no scholarly expertise. In fact, I have equal disdain for those academics who treat Shakespeare’s plays as if they are novels to be read, and the fools who insist that someone else wrote them.
Shakespeare’s great plays were written by a man of the theatre with a deep and intimate knowledge of stagecraft, which is why they are still so playable for today’s actors, four centuries later. I offer here the experience and love of a poor player who had the great joy and privilege of wrestling with a few of his memorable characters.
If this is ‘as you like it’ please join us over the next three Mondays for more.
And to ’we few, we happy few’ who are regulars – Good Morning, Friends!
SOURCES AND FURTHER READING
- The Plays of William Shakespeare
- For a more technical approach to the verse: https://www.bl.uk/shakespeare/articles/prose-and-verse-in-shakespeares-plays
- Romeo and Juliet, painted by Raphael Tuck, c. 1900
- Jessica from The Merchant of Venice, painter not credited, and standing in for Lorenzo, David Rizzio, painted by Sir James Linton