Tuesday, April 11, 2017

On Othello: Context, Subtext, Intertext

For a review of the text: It was written about 1603-4. The plot takes place in Cyprus, Venice, and the leading character Othello is based upon Un Capitano Moro from Cinthio's "Hecatommithi," a collection of short stories with the outline of a tragedy. The plot in Othello closely follows Cinthio's plotline.

Context: During the time Othello was published, Venice was flourishing. People viewed it as a place of luxury and wealth; many even called it the pleasure capital of Europe (in terms of sexual tolerance). Socially, Venetians were generally hospitable to foreign people, but class distinctions were rigid and primarily determined by honor and reputation. Women were subordinate to men (wives to husbands/fathers), although many women did embrace informality of sexual relationships and took up roles as courtesans. Venice amassed its wealth from trade with to Ottomans and North African peoples; we can trace Othello's lineage here by his title "the Moor." In 1570, however, the Turks took Cyprus from the Venetians, uprooting their glorious society and marking the decline of Venice itself.

Subtexts: Cultural tensions were high during this period due to colonization and expansion. The Venetians were faced with the new Turkish presence as North African people were faced with the Venetian presence. Consequently, remarks about racism and assimilation come up often in the text, demonstrating the hesitation to blend cultures. Additionally, how things are versus how things seem repeatedly arises, warning that people should not believe the first thing they see or make assumptions based on what things seem. Examples of misunderstandings include Othello's magical seduction of Desdemona, Iago's honest, Cassio's reputation, and Desdemona's adultery.

Intertexts: Shakespeare's other works such as Richard III, Titus Andronicus, and The Merchant of Venice are useful intertexts. In the first two plays, Richard of Gloucester and Aaron are characters whom Iago was modeled on; therefore, understanding their characters deepens our understanding of Iago. In The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare emphasizes the Venetian people's fascination with foreign people and glorifies Venice in its portrayal. Lastly, the Bible behaves as an intertext. Desdemona radiates Christian virtues (love, patience) but seems to be influenced by the devil when she "commits adultery." Further, Othello's magical powers of seduction are supposedly satanic in nature. Altogether, Othello is likened to Adam, Desdemona is likened to Eve, and Iago signifies the evil serpent who leads them astray.

"Is Hamlet Germany?" On the Political Reception of Hamlet

Here is the link to our Google Slide presentation:


Saturday, February 25, 2017

On Shakespeare Unauthorized

When I am frantically writing an essay at three in the morning, I sometimes stop to ask myself why I am so incapable of writing coherent sentences. I have moments where I question whether or not I am literate because all I see around me are talented, articulate individuals. Every student at some point has felt the need to be better, the inadequacy that comes with peer editing and the process of learning. I, however, did not expect Shakespeare to have encountered the same problems. Over the years, he has been romanticized and idolized to the point of becoming superhuman. Imagine my surprise when I visited the Shakespeare Unauthorized exhibit at the BPL and realized that he was as flawed as any college freshman. 

Walking through the exhibit, I was equally stunned and gratified to learn that the first draft of Hamlet's soliloquy was, honestly, sophomoric. Multiple folios made clear the fact that the Bard was not a perfect genius, and if anything he was a very imperfect man with a remarkable talent. His propensity to steal plots, his multiple editions of his plays are evidence that the process of writing never becomes any easier. Perhaps by modern standards it is unacceptable to plagiarize storylines, but judging Renaissance individuals by 21st-century mores is absurd. I am reminded of a famous quote by T.S. Eliot, "Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different." To me, Shakespeare seems a blend of a mature poet and a good one. We can look back  on his early work with rose-tinted glasses all we want, but at the end of the day he remains the same person, and the breadth of his work is a testament to the man he was, not the false idol he has become. 

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

The Whirligig of Time

Before visiting the exhibit, I was certainly aware of the many theories that Shakespeare himself was not the author of those plays. I gave those theories about as much consideration as I gave to the "proof" that the moon landing was faked or that the Earth is flat. Shakespeare Unauthorized both affirmed and shook my confidence in the authenticity of the bard's plays. Firstly, the multiple editions of Hamlet took me by surprise, but upon closer inspection I dismissed the first edition as a poor attempt to copy Shakespeare. If it was truly his work, how could it be so different from what we have now? The exhibit then seemed to confirm my thoughts on his authorship by debunking the many conspiracy theories. However, just as I was beginning to feel at ease again, I reached the portion of the exhibit dedicated to Macbeth, one of my favorite Shakespeare plays. To discover that many scholars believe that the version of the play that we have differs greatly from what Shakespeare originally wrote was a shock, and it was this shock that caused me to open my mind a bit more. Looking about the exhibit and seeing the times that other authors altered the plays, the examples of poor penmanship changing crucial lines, and the many editions of a play that might be published, I realized that Shakespeare's plays were not as set in stone as I thought.

I will not throw in my lot with those who credit Shakespeare's plays to some other author, I still find that to be an absurd notion. However, I think that perhaps time has been very favorable to Shakespeare. He has had the benefit of centuries of other authors tinkering with his plays, something few other writers have had. I believe it is possible that many, if not all of his plays that we have today are not entirely how he wrote them, and that this may be true even for the iconic scenes. Hamlet varies drastically between editions, and while Shakespeare is certainly the one responsible for the play, it may be possible that he is not responsible for as those variations as we would like to believe.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

CSI: A Tempest by Amie Cesaire

CSI: A Tempest by Aime Cesaire (1969)
Translated by Richard Miller (1992)
Zoe Roth, Julia Rowley

    Aime Cesaire
-Poet and politician from Martinique, a French colony
-Other works: Discourse on Colonialism
    -Established a provocative direct link between colonialism and fascism
-Mayor of Fort-de-France, ran under the Communist party
-Later resigned because he felt communism made racism a subordinate issue to class struggle
-In french; 1969 Hammamet, Tunisia and 1970 Paris.
    -1992 Pennont in Martinique kept Eshu on stage the whole time.
    -Negritude: “The first diasporic ‘black pride’ movement”(pg vii)
-Surrealism: ideals or practice of producing fantastic imagery or effects in art by means of unnatural or irrational juxtapositions and combinations.
- Marxism: Wanted to get rid of social and economic classes and materialism.
    -1946, Martinique joined France under their Overseas department instead of gaining independence.
    -1960’s Civil Rights movement in America. (Some compare Malcolm X to Caliban and Martin Luther King Jr. to Ariel)

-New character, Master of ceremonies and black devil-god.
        -From Yoruba Nigerian/Latin American mythology
        -Harsher and chaotic unlike other spirits
        -Yoruba deity of thunder, chaotic nature theme
        -Caliban changes his name because it loses meaning when Prospero says it.
        -“Uhuru” means freedom in Swahili
        -”Cannibal” or “Hannibal” (pg 20)
        -Fowl language, especially Eshu, and the drunks
        -’Ghetto’ and how Prospero vs Caliban see the caves
        -Caliban cares for the earth, calls Prospero Anti-Nature
        -Prospero sees the land as riches to use, as do the royals
        -Relates to colonization and just using resources
    Prospero directs
        -The tempest is personified as a character with a part in the “play”
-Prospero enters with megaphone, “It’s only a play” (pg 12)
        -Puts on the wedding show then it gets crashed by Eshu
        -Eshu is the real director, “Master of Ceremonies”
        -Translator includes own ideas for tunes
        -Direct translations in the back of the book
        -Caliban chants instead of sings
        -Explicitly says Ariel is mulatto while Caliban and Eshu are black
        - The 3 characters who are slaves and ‘lesser’ (excludes Miranda)
        -”Your ‘white’ magic!” Caliban to Prospero (pg 60)       
-Often used as another example of the lack of civilization displayed by Caliban, an exorcism is suggested
-Introduces another dimension of responsibility and forgiveness: the difference between attrition and contrition is discussed (pg 35)

Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller (1949)
-“Once you’ve squeezed the juice from the orange, you toss the rind away” Caliban to Prospero (pg 19)
-”You can’t eat the orange and throw the peel away — a man is not a piece of fruit!” Lowman to his boss after being fired.
Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead (1967)/ Waiting for Godot (1952)
-Trinculo and Stephano are both useless, especially drunk
-Go back and forth but don’t do anything helpful
-”I can’t take anymore… I’m going to sit down!” Trinculo to Stephano (pg 54)
-Estragon sits down on the mound. Vladimir paces agitatedly to and fro, halting from time to time to gaze into distance off.” Waiting for Godot
Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe (1852)
    -Racism and slavery (pg 26)
Hannibal the Cannibal, novel series (1981)
    Came after A Tempest. Probably just rhymes and historical Hannibal.
    -Hannibal from Carthage, on the most renowned military generals in history.
“Vox populi, vox Dei” (pg 44)
    “The voice of the people, the voice of God”
    -Common phrase about political wisdom
The Odyssey
    References to Ulysses, Cyclops, and Nausicaa
    -Uses the Latin translation of the language
    -Adds a different dimension to the relationship between Ferdinand and Miranda
    -Cesaire was inspired by Epic Heroes

Works Cited
    Césaire, Aimé. A tempest: based on Shakespeare's The tempest, adaptation for a Black theatre. Trans. Richard Miller. New York: TCG Translations, 2002. Print.
Cesaire’s’ Une Tempete at The Gate (pdf)
Green, Victoria. "A Tempest Themes of African Mythology and Referencing Civil Rights Activist." Theater 271. Web. 06 Feb. 2017.
Iiwinc. "History of Martinique." Martinique History. Caribya, n.d. Web. 06 Feb. 2017.

Classism in Shakespeare's England

On my visit to the Shakespeare Unauthorized exhibit at the Boston Public Library, there was one particular segment that caught my attention and surprised me. Despite the fact that, for most students today, Shakespeare is seen as one of the greatest, if not, the greatest playwright in history, the exhibit showed that his reputation was not always this way.

In his day, someone with his humble background, coming from a provincial family and no university education, would be seen by his peers as automatically intellectually inferior to the more learned aristocracy. Even the brilliance of Shakespeare was dimmed by his low-class upbringing, showing how important class was at this point in history. The exhibit showed an example of this portrayal of Shakespeare with a copy of The History of the Worthies of England, a series of biographies of notable Englishmen which included the first ever biography of Shakespeare. In it, the author, James Fuller, humanizes Shakespeare not only by mentioning his poor roots but also by depicting him as a frequenter of ale houses and a person who was "unrefined" by English social standards of the time. This is a very interesting and, ultimately, sad part of the history of Shakespeare, as it reflects the terrible classism that affected every facet of English life and even managed to make the most brilliant playwright of his generation look undignified.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

The Making of Shakespeare

After Tuesday's visit to the Boston Public Library's Shakespeare exhibit, I was struck by the realization that in actuality, all that modern society accredits to "Shakespeare" cannot be accurately described this way. Certainly, he was the mastermind behind some powerful plays, and I don't doubt that he was a real person, as some conspiracy theories suggest. Despite all of this though, the touch of a posthumous editor or the blurred conversion between spoken plays and written books can and has drastically altered the works of this playwright from four hundred years ago, as evidenced in the exhibit. What if Shakespeare's original writings wouldn't even be recognizable in comparison to the modern versions we've all read?

Although this thought rattles certain conceptions many have long held in regards to Shakespeare, I think the most important thing to consider is whether or not this idea that Hamlet and Macbeth may have been more of a group project actually detracts from the value of the final work. Would we revere Shakespeare less if it was proven that he had help, if we had to admit that he had been co-authored, edited, or helped? After seeing the displays and the facts within them, it's nearly impossible to avoid acknowledging that Shakespeare was not entirely a one-man show. Along with that, it can't really be denied that his influence is wide-reaching, case-in-point: the Boston Public Library has an entire exhibit devoted to him and Boston University Kilachand Honors College offers a seminar on him each year. I think the most important thing I've come away from this exhibit understanding is that Shakespeare's works remain integral to our society even if he may not have worked entirely alone, and it may have been posthumously altered.

What's in a typo?


     We usually don't think too much about handwriting anymore because everything we do is usually typed on a computer. But manuscripts and first drafts would have to be hand written in Shakespeare's lifetime. I tried to read William Shakespeare's will and the only words I could make out and be sure about was his signature. As long as he also told someone his will, mistakes in reading it couldn't cause many problems.
     However, one word in the middle of Othello's final speech can change the entire meaning of the passage. Printed in the First Quarto (1622),  Othello compares himself to 'the base Indian' while in the First Folio (1623) it reads "the base Judean" (Levin 60). These two words are very different in how they describe Othello's character.
     If the original meaning was "Indian", then this would bring to mind thoughts of the cannibals and savages of the New World that Shakespeare's society was so eager to gossip about. More primal and lowly attributes would be applied to the general.
     The word being "Judean" is less likely due to the OED saying that "the earliest citation it records (after the Folio reading, which is labeled 'doubtful') is from a book published in 1652" (Levin 61). But giving the benefit of the doubt to the word gives Othello aspects of Judas, the man who betrayed Jesus Christ. Othello would be comparing himself as a traitor which evokes a very different type of emotion from the audience than comparing himself to an Indian.
    It's amazing to see how much a few wrong looking letters can change the analysis of an entire speech. Shakespeare's handwriting was terrible and it's his fault that the word can be up for debate. However, the mistakes and typos do not take away from his status because it only causes more people to talk about Shakespeare's works. The idea of Shakespeare is a much larger concept than just his writing and bibliography, it includes the power of his name and it's effects on people still to this day.

Levin, Richard. “The Indian/Iudean Crux In Othello.” Shakespeare Quarterly, vol. 33, no. 1, 1982, pp. 60–67.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

"by Shakespeare"

Shakespeare is the pinnacle of English literature and theatre; his works carry a legacy larger than life. So how can it be that so little remains from Shakespeare himself? As the “Shakespeare Unauthorized” exhibit expressed today, people know very little about his earliest manuscripts. He collaborated with other playwrights and only had his name published on his works beginning in 1598; thus, it is difficult to discern which components in his plays are directly attributable to him. Further, several upcoming dramatists plagiarized him, publishing personal works under the great bard’s name and consequently calling into question the authenticity of works “by Shakespeare.” Even from a straightforward historical perspective, the limited number of copies makes his original work somewhat untraceable, for the paper is physically nonexistent now.

I kept thinking then: how can someone in many ways forgotten, someone whose true work has literally turned to dust become the impossibly fantastic icon he is today? I believe it is appropriation. In actuality, people have been changing and adapting Shakespeare since his first publications. Directors and actors often edited the original scripts, critiquing dialogues and staging, even fully adding and excluding scenes to create the major works we have today. Moreover, this trend in modification is what continues now.

Without doubt, Shakespeare pioneered writing by introducing new themes, vocabulary, and storylines, among other things. Nevertheless, I believe that his popularity and inconceivable fame strongly arise from people’s continued efforts to understand and represent the enigma he portrays. There are no “original” Shakespeare pieces; those are lost to history. Thus, the originality represents the first moments when people appropriated plays, when people first started to inscribe what “we mean by Shakespeare.” He marks the turning point in art history when people recognized their freedom to interpret and create realities through writing. Although the world will never know what Shakespeare himself intended, part of the fun lies in the possibility that the plays we write today could get him right.