Posted tagged ‘Shakespeare’

In Praise of Footnotes (Polar Bear Cub/Anything But The Republicans Dept.)

January 11, 2012

Because more or less anything is better than contemplating ten more months of Romney’s self-congratulatory predation of the electorate, I thought I’d try to counter (in some minor way, a jot or a tittle)  the quadrennial sense of despair that comes with the mention of Dixville Notch.

My antidote?

The treasures to be found in those pre-digitized lodes of easter eggs, footnotes in books written by generous minds.

In today’s case, that would be what I found as I finally got my crack at a book I had given my wife this Chanukah, Verdi’s Shakespeare, by one of our national treasures, Garry Wills.  There, in the first chapter, Wills made mention of Winter’s Tale, and its alpha and omega of stage directions: “Exit, pursued by bear.”

That’s one of those bits of theatrical trivia that I can’t remember learning. I think my father was the first person I heard say it, misquoting to “exit hurridly,” whenever he wanted to be gone from something dull — or to get his wild and wired son to bed.  And like most folks (I guess) I always assumed (at least from the time I realized it had something to do with a play, and not a playacting dad) that any action on stage would have been between an actor and some guy in a bear suit.

But no, Wills tells me — laconically, first, in the body of his text, writing that “when it [Shakespeare’s troupe] had a  young polar bear on hand, he wrote a scene stopper…”

That was curious enough.  A polar bear?  In London.  In 1610?

Dive into the footnotes, and it gets better:

It used to be thought that the “bear’ was a man in costume.  But scholars have now focused on the fact that two polar bear cubs were brought back from the waters off Greenland in 1609, that they were turned over to Philip Henslowe’s bear collection (hard by the Globe theater), and that polar bears show up in three productions of the 1610-1611 theatrical season….Polar bears become fierce at pubescence and were relegated to bear baiting, but the cubs were apparently still trainable in their  young state.”

Well, that explains that.  But Wills is a kind and giving writer…and so there’s more:

Since polar bears are such good swimmers, the king even turned them loose in the Thames to have aquatic bear baitings.*

Oh, joy! So much out of so little — and what a reward for the virtuous act of actually looking at the endnotes!**  There’s threads of all kinds of historical ideas to pull there — everything from thoughts about the extended pre- or early history of globalizing media to the power of spectacle as social glue, then as now — and much more, of course.  But what pleased me more, I think, as I retold this factoid to the unwary all day, is simply the images that Wills evoked, playing across my mind’s eye.

Which is to say that nothing here has much to do with the price of eggs. But my brain and my world are enriched, just a little, by the thought of a shambling cub, coat too big for its limbs, rising up on its hind legs to glare at the squealing, hooting, transfixed and terrified audience clamoring just beyond the edge of the stage.

Just thought I’d share…

*Wills directs those with yet more interest in the performing beast of Winter’s Tale to Barbara Ravelhofer, “‘Beasts of Recreacion’ Henslowe’s White Bears,” ELR 32 (2202), pp. 287-323 and Teresa Grant, “Polar Performances, The King’s Bear Cubs on the Jacobean Stage,” Times Literary Supplement, June 14, 2002.

**To declare what is, I hope, obvious:  I’m no fan of bear baiting.  Torturing animals for sport is not my idea of a good time or a good act.  But I dearly love gaining glimpses into the past, and it is always important to remember:  that’s a different country, and they do things differently there.

Image:  Albert Bierstadt, Bears in the Wilderness, c. 1870.

Quick hit link love

August 5, 2010

This one probably slipped by most people, as it showed up in that bastion of mass media attention, The Boston Phoenix, but Professor, née Colonel Andrew Bacevich gave a sharp and important interview to their reporter, and you should read it.

The key take away: wars fought because we’ve been fighting them are (a) futile, and (b) demand sacrifices of those committed to giving them for reasons inadequate to that devotion.

On a happier note, for those wishing to enjoy some truly happy snark on the idiocies of nativism from a historical point of view should check out this piece by that foundational journalist, Daniel Defoe, pointed out to me by the admirable Thony C of Renaissance Mathematicus.

That’s it for a busy Thursday afternoon.  Sons and in-laws await, and so I’ll steal a much better writer’s farewell until tomorrow.

Image:  Hans von Gersdorff, “Battlefield Wounds” in Feldbuch der Wundarznei, 1517

Why I Love the English Language…19th Century Prose Slinging Dept.

January 7, 2010

For reasons too uninterestingly tangled to explain, I recently found myself in the wee hours of the morning, reading Algernon Charles Swinburne’s biographical entry on Mary Queen of Scots in my copy of the 11th Edition of the Encyclopedia Brittanica.

Swinburne was inordinately proud of this piece.  The 11th Edition’s compilers appended a note in which they quote from a letter Swinburne wrote in 1882.  In it, he wrote, “Mary Stuart has procured me…an application from the editor of the [9th edlition] Enclyclopedia Britannica…to me, a mere poet, proposing that I should contribute to that great repository of erudition the biography of Mary Queen f Scots.  I doubt if the like compliment was ever paid before to one of our ‘idle trade.'”

It is a marvelous example of both Victorian historiography/hagiography and of a certain kind of prose style.  Most of all, one thing that English/British writers in the nineteenth century really knew was the craft of the sentence.

I’m not sure that even I, with my blog-documented love of polyclausal sentences, could bring myself to attempt this kind of thing — and I don’t think what talent I have really runs that direction anyway.  But for anyone who loves the rhythm section in the music of English, check this out:

Elizabeth, so shamefully her inferior in personal loyalty, fidelity and gratitude, was so clearly her superior on the one all-important point of patriotism.  The saving salt of Elizabeth’s character, with all its wellnigh incredible mixture of heroism and egotism, meanness and magnificence, was simply this, that, overmuch as she  loved herself, she did yet love England better.  Her best though not her only fine qualities were national and political, the high public virtues of a good publc servant; in the private and personal qualities which attract and attach a friend to his friend and a follower to his leader, no man or woman was ever more constant and more eminent than Mary Queen of Scots.

Damn.  That’s some fine stuff.  And what’s wonderful, at least to me, is the match of content to sound and pace.  Not to mention the — I’m sure conscious — nod to the wellsprings of both Swinburne’s sentiment and at least some of his diction.  That “so shamefully her inferior in personal loyalty, fidelity and gratitude”….well think of my man Billy Shakespeare, and this, from Viola in Twelfth Night, act III scene 4:

“I hate ingratitude more in a man
than lying, vainness, babbling, drunkenness,
or any taint of vice whose strong corruption
inhabits our frail blood.”

We have a great instrument on which to play.  Writing, when it is not miserable labor, entrains such joy.

Image:  Thomas Eakins, “The Writing Master,” 1882.  I have a vague memory that I might have posted this one before — but I like it, so here it is.